Every client wants his legal team to handle problems quickly, knowledgeably, and efficiently. Clients want lawyers and paralegals who are competent. Lawyers and paralegals have an ethical duty to perform legal services in a competent manner.
What is competence? It is providing legal services with a reasonable degree of legal knowledge and skill. The level of legal knowledge and skill varies from case to case. It depends on the area of the law, the client's goals, and the complexity of the case. A great deal of legal skill and knowledge is required, for example, when representing a client who is purchasing commercial property subject to long-term government financing interests. A lawyer or paralegal who does not have the necessary legal knowledge or skill in that area of the law acts unethically by undertaking to represent this client. Lawyers and paralegals become competent to handle specific legal matters in a number of ways:
Legal education. A quality legal education provides skills in legal analysis and research. These skills enable the legal professional to identify and acquire the legal knowledge needed for competent representation of a client. Legal analysis and research skills not only allow mastery of an unfamiliar area of the law, they are indispensable when responding to periodic changes in the law.
On-the-job training. There is no better way to become competent at a task than to perform that task. Because legal education cannot possibly address every area of the law or every legal problem, most lawyers and paralegals develop competence through on-the-job training.
Association with experienced legal professionals. Part of the reason lawyers practice in groups is to take advantage of shared expertise. Developing legal knowledge and skills is often easier when you can call on the experience of a senior lawyer or paralegal.
Continuing legal education. In many states, lawyers are required to fulfill a continuing legal education requirement in order to maintain their license to practice law. These lawyers attend seminars conducted by colleagues experienced in the field to increase their legal knowledge and stay abreast of developments in specific areas of the law.
A bad outcome is not evidence of incompetence. The duty of competence requires only that the paralegal use reasonable care in applying legal knowledge and skill to the legal problems of the client. Even competent paralegals cannot guarantee a good outcome.
The obligation of competence falls equally on the lawyer and the paralegal. Paralegals must take affirmative steps to maintain the required degree of legal knowledge and skill. The ethical paralegal is continually looking for ways to improve competency. The ethical paralegal also guards against common competency traps:
Failure to disclose inexperience when a legal task is assigned. Many lawyers will assume a paralegal is competent to perform a legal task unless told otherwise. If the paralegal is not competent, the lawyer may be personally responsible for any adverse consequences resulting from poorly performed legal work.
Allowing work product to be used without review by the supervising attorney. A busy attorney working with an experienced paralegal may get into the habit of using the paralegal's work product without reviewing it first. Although it is gratifying to have the confidence of the supervising lawyer, this situation poses serious ethical problems.
Failure to keep track of deadlines. Some deadlines, if missed, can have serious adverse consequences for the client.
Virtually all law firms have some sort of reminder ( “tickler” ) system to keep track of deadlines.
Documentation errors. Do not rely on the review by the supervising attorney to discover error in a document you prepared. Carefully review every legal description, document disclosure, and contract clause that passes your desk. Ask questions if you are not sure that a word or phrase is correct.