What do the rules of professional conduct have to say about competence?
When a person makes the decision to retain the services of an attorney to handle a particular issue — from an estate plan or employment agreement to a divorce or a DWI — they understandably assume — and rightly expect — a certain level of competence.
Indeed, the very first decree in the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct addresses this very issue, dictating that an attorney must provide “competent representation” to a client. Indeed, the rule goes on to declare that the foundation of such representation is “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary.”
While this seems relatively straightforward, the scope of the rule is actually somewhat broad:
Legal knowledge and skill
When assessing an attorney’s legal knowledge and skill in a particular matter, multiple factors must be taken into account, including:
- The specialized nature and complexity of the subject matter
- The general experience of the attorney
- The experience and training of the attorney in the field involved
- The study and preparation the attorney is able to devote to the subject matter at issue
- The feasibility of the attorney consulting with or referring the matter to another attorney whose competence in the field is established
It may come as a surprise for people to learn then that while expertise (i.e., comprehensive legal knowledge and skill) may indeed be required in certain circumstances, the requisite proficiency in many cases is only that of a general practitioner.
“Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge,” reads the commentary to the rule on competence.
Indeed the rule goes on to state that an attorney doesn’t necessarily need to have received specialized training or possess a set amount of experience to handle an issue with which he or she is unfamiliar.
In other words, a newly admitted attorney can be just as competent as a colleague with decades of experience, and an attorney can provide sufficient representation in a foreign area provided they undertake the necessary study.
As you can see from the foregoing, this is can prove to be a complex topic. We’ll continue our discussion in a future post.
In the meantime, if you have suffered some manner of financial harm that you believe can be attributed to the negligent actions of your attorney, you should consider speaking with a skilled legal professional to learn more about the possibility pursuing a legal malpractice claim.
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