“If you practice as a lawyer, you owe it to your clients only to do the things you are competent to do. Embarking on the defense of a man accused of murder as your first trial is a moral and ethical outrage. Regrettably, the profession is barraged with eager voices telling us that attracting clients with puffery and keywords and Twitter accounts is the way to build a practice. Nobody’s reminding us that you have an obligation to know what you’re doing before you accept the client. Somebody should.”
—-Ken, the lead blogger/attorney/libertarian/ wit/ First Amendment champion at Popehat, summarizing the lessons of the Joseph Rakofsky saga. Rakofsky was a green D.C. lawyer ( he is still a lawyer, less green but sadder and wiser) who indeed did take a murder defense as his first trial, made an epic botch of it, and then launched a desperate defamation lawsuit at legal bloggers, like Ken, who had told his cautionary tale to the world with appropriate ire. The law suit was dismissed last week.
Competence is an ethical value, especially in the professions, but also in most pursuits. Taking on the responsibility of accomplishing a task creates a duty, and doing so without being justifiably certain that you will have the skills to do it is reckless and irresponsible.
Ken, an experienced and accomplished attorney whom I have consulted for his professional advice in the past, also knows that inexperience does have to be eradicated with experience, and a strict application of his statement in all cases would lead to a frustrating Catch 22. Every pilot has to take that first solo flight; every head surgeon has his first major operation; and Clarence Darrow had to take on that first murder trial before he could say with complete confidence that he knew exactly what to do. On a more basic level, any lawyer taking on a representation in a type of matter she has never handled before, such as drafting a will, will be, in a sense, accepting a client before she knows what she is doing, because she hasn’t done it before. That’s okay, however: the ethics rules, as expressed in the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct (in Rule 1.1) say its okay, as long as, by the time the task is underway, the lawyer is sufficiently competent: Continue reading