Once an attorney is licensed to practice law, that attorney can practice law. There is no additional testing required for a lawyer to practice family law or criminal law, although there are board-certified specialization programs for certain legal areas. Outside of patent law, a lawyer is free to take on any case they choose after passing their state bar exam.
If any lawyer may practice any type of law they want, how can competency be determined? The American Bar Association provides some guidance, stating that, “Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”
Lawyers love their word salad. In somewhat simpler terms, the ABA guidance may be interpreted in the following way:
- A competent lawyer possesses the skill to identify the legal problems or issues that may govern a client’s situation; and
- Analyze the relevant legal and factual issues
Notice that there is no requirement that a lawyer have all the answers to your case. Also, there is no guarantee that competency will lead to a successful result.
Competency involves more than mere legal knowledge. A lawyer is also responsible for meeting deadlines. Adequate case preparation is also essential.
Is incompetency malpractice?
Whether a lawyer’s representation meets the competency standards required by the profession is determined on a case-by-case basis. Incompetent representation on its own may not be enough to successfully prevail on a legal malpractice claim. Your case must have suffered some irreparable harm due to your attorney’s incompetency.
It’s important to vet an attorney before entrusting them with your legal matter. Ask them about their experience and whether they’ve handled cases like yours before. Online reviews may provide some limited insight into an attorney’s legal practice. If you believe your attorney has incompetently handled your case, you should discuss possible malpractice claims with a skilled legal professional.