Attorney at Law not Dabbler at Law

There are many lawyers starting up their law practice these days. Some have become unemployed by larger firms downsizing as an economic survival tactic while others are newer lawyers who have decided to hedge their bet on getting an associate position. Whatever the push for opening up one’s own law practice, the attorney should take care to devote him- or her-self wholeheartedly to the clients who come seeking legal help. No dabbler’s in the law! You’d be horrified if a doctor set about to see a patient with a dabbler-in-medicine attitude. It is just as serious. What is dabbling? Though not a term of art, we all would agree that to dabble is to engage in something without the serious study and practice required of competent mastery.

Oregon Rule of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.1 Competence, based on the ABA Model Rules, states: A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Four Quadrants of Competence: Unconscious Incompetence is a dangerous place for dabblers
You may have heard of the Four Quadrants of Competence: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and Unconscious Competence. Passing the State Bar Exam indicates you have minimum competence. The Bar Exam can’t test all areas of law practice or assess how well a candidate can deal with a specific issue facing a client. Herein lays the danger: you may not know what you do not know. This is the quadrant known as Unconscious Incompetence. Something you can’t forget if you are working by yourself without supervision by a more experienced lawyer.

Cure for Dabbling
If you have a mentor helping you, call. If not, you may want to contact the Oregon State Bar Lawyer to Lawyer Program which allows you to check in with a more experienced lawyer. You can reach the Lawyer to Lawyer Program by calling the Bar at 503-431-6408. If you want to help lawyers by participating in the rewarding program, download an application here. The Lawyer to Lawyer Program is especially helpful as more experienced lawyers find themselves feeling the need to practice out of their practice area in order to make overhead and cost of living expenses.

It takes time to move from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence – where you are aware that you don’t know something and seek advice. It takes years of practice, getting advice and guidance from senior attorneys, attending substantive area CLEs and studying to develop the mastery of a practice area with Conscious Competence where you are aware that you know it and are tuned into the process of doing the details with competence.

As you may recall, the fourth Quadrant is Unconscious Competence, where you just act with competence without being consciously aware of the many steps. You may see unconsciously competent attorneys seemingly engaging effortlessly in cross-examination of a witness. They are not just a natural giant in the courtroom; they have honed their skills over decades of hard work. Many of these members of the Bar are willing to serve as mentors. Ask around for who are the giants in a practice area; call on them for some mentoring. They can help you prevent dabbling in the law.

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About smblackford

Sheila Blackford received her B.A. from Mills College and her J.D. with Tax Law Concentration from McGeorge School of Law. A member of the Oregon State Bar since 2000, she is active with the American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, where she is Editor-in-Chief of Law Practice magazine and Chair of the Law Practice Magazine Editorial Board 2011-present, a member of the Section Council (2010-present), State and Local Bar Outreach Committee (2008-present), and Ethics Committee (2011-present). She also served as a member of the track advisory board for ABA TECHSHOW (2007, 2008, 2009, 2012). Ms. Blackford has been a Practice Management Advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund since 2005. She is a member of the Adjunct Faculty at University of Oregon School of Law, teaching Law Practice Management. A former sole practitioner, she provides confidential practice management assistance to Oregon attorneys to reduce their risk of malpractice claims and ethics complaints. In addition to her legal experience, she has over 10 years of teaching and marketing experience. She is a frequent speaker about practice management for law-related organizations, including the Professional Liability Fund, the Oregon State Bar, the American Bar Association, and the Upper Law Society of Canada. She is a contributing author to the Fee Agreement Compendium published by the OSB and to the PLF law practice management handbooks. Her articles frequently appear in legal publications, including the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, In Brief, Law Practice Magazine and Law Practice TODAY, and LTN Law Technology News. In between articles, she writes the Just Oregon Lawyers blog and tweets technology and practice management tips on Twitter, @sheilablackford.
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