A Woolley: Ensuring Competent Representation: Know what you don’t know

Alice Woolley posted to SLAW on December 29, 2014

Being a competent lawyer means knowing your own limits. Lawyers representing clients in cases for which they do not have the necessary knowledge and skills risk liability in negligence, being found to have provided ineffective assistance of counsel (in a criminal case) and violating the obligations of the codes governing their conduct. Those codes define the competent lawyer as “recognizing limitations in one’s ability to handle a matter of some aspect of it and taking steps accordingly to ensure the client is appropriately served” (FLS Model Code, Rule 3.1-1(h)). They further state that a lawyer ought not to take on a matter for which she is not competent and must recognize “a task for which the lawyer lacks competence” (Rule 3.1-2, Commentaries 5 and 6).

How difficult can this be? Quite, according to some recent media reports. While the facts as reported are not sufficient to support the conclusion that the lawyers involved acted improperly, they do at least raise the question: given the apparent disconnect between their expertise and their clients’ circumstances, why were these lawyers acting? And what lessons might we be able to draw to allow lawyers to appreciate when folding ‘em is wiser than holding ‘em?

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