Staying In Your Legal Lane
by Paul La Fayette, Esq.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
I know a little about a lot. This is what happens when you become an attorney who helps his clients in the myriad of their legal needs.
In my practice, helping professionals, particularly medical and dental students, I always tell them that it is important to “stay in your lane.” That is, do not go outside your comfort zone with a particular procedure. While performing a new procedure may seem interesting or exciting, it may not be in the best interest of the patient.
The same holds true for legal representation. There are times when we are faced with the challenge of handling a matter that is at the outer reaches of our knowledge and experience – or even well beyond it. At those times, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “If I were this client, would I be comfortable with me, knowing what I don’t know, handling the matter?” If the answer is anything other than an unequivocal “yes” you need to consider referring the client to someone who is more specialized or involving someone who is more specialized to assist in the handling of the matter.
Under the Ohio Code of Professional Conduct, a lawyer must provide “competent representation to a client.” Prof.Cond.R.1.1 competent representation requires “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” Id. The comment section of Prof.Cond.R.1.1 elaborates on this requirement by stating, “… a lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar. A newly admitted lawyer can be as competent as a practitioner with long experience.”
However, “expertise in a particular field of law may be required in some circumstances” and relevant factors include “the relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter, the lawyer’s general experience, the lawyer’s training and experience in the field in question, the preparation and study the lawyer is able to give the matter and whether it is feasible to refer the matter, or associate or consult with, a lawyer of established competence in the field in question.” Prof.Cond.R.1.1 (comment ).
In Toledo Bar Ass’n v. Hales, 120 Ohio St. 3d 340, the Ohio Supreme Court suspended an attorney from the practice of law for two years because he, among other things, mishandled and consequently lost a client’s medical malpractice claim because of his inexperience.
An attorney’s failure to provide competent legal services due to inexperience, or practicing outside of their practice area, may demonstrate that the attorney “breached his duty to plaintiff by failing to provide competent legal services”. See Dimacchia v. Burke, 6th Cir. No. 8903702, 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 9275 (June 7, 1999).
When in doubt, or when you feel uncomfortable with a particular matter, it is okay to tell the client that you cannot help or, alternatively, bring someone on board to help who has the necessary experience or expertise.