Chapter 3 - Competence

The previous chapter was dedicated to efficiency and helping new attorneys to understand that the lawyer's "entitlement mentality" is destructive to the foundation of building a successful law practice. This chapter deals with being a competent attorney.

In major metropolitan locales, attorneys can successfully fake competence. Repeat business is not as important, so long as the population density can sustain "the next unfortunate client who comes to me for legal services." Therefore, in all candor, Chapter 2 (on efficiency) is far more important than this chapter when it comes to a strict "business" view of managing a law practice.

With that said, most attorneys do have an honest yearning to be competent attorneys. In many cases, about the only sunk cost out there for satisfying a lawyer's ego is the cost of competence. This is a "sunk" cost because you have already incurred the cost of an education - whether or not you have actually paid for those $100k+ student loans. At least if you are competent enough to play on intellectual par with the big-shot attorneys, you can take pride in that. Most of us want that. It is easy to get.

The myth that the top graduates are the smart ones is an unfortunate one. The myth that the attorney who had to take the bar three times cannot compete with the intellect of the big boys is, likewise, unfortunate. You have the same license. You have access to the same research materials. Go for it. Bone up. Hone your knowledge and skills.

It is surprising how people will go to lengths to buy fancy cars, watches, suits, offices, staff, etc., but you cannot get them to part with hardly a dime toward "professional development." This means research materials. Every good lawyer has access to robust research materials.

"Well, that one's super-easy. I'll just go to the law library when I need to research." Wrong! Let me say it again. Wrong!

If you lived in the library, you might do ample legal research. For the rest of us, if we do not have convenient access to quality research materials, we will justify in far too many cases why we do not need to go through all the trouble to drive across town, find parking, etc. in order to go perform the required research at the library or a friend's office. If this describes you, stay out of litigation unless you want to become comfortable with losing on a very regular basis.

The best lawyers are researching almost every day. They do not run around half-cocked, thinking they remember some statute they researched three years ago, let alone three weeks ago. The practice of law is like peeling an onion. The layers are very, very thin. Good lawyers know this. Aside from the most mundane, monotonous tasks, such as drafting a simple deed or will, they go back and double-check their memories on a regular basis (not to mention confirming there has not been a change in the law).

For example, let us say that the law relating to non-judicial foreclosures provides that the creditor must give 20 days' notice of intent to accelerate the debt. Let also say a non-movant in a motion for summary judgment is entitled to 21 days' notice of the hearing on the motion. It is easy to conflate rules like these when relying on memory alone. As they say, it is not if you will commit malpractice; it is when.

As another example, the rules of procedure might provide that, in counting the days on the calendar, you start counting on the day following the day the motion was served by the other party. However, the statute on non-judicial foreclosure might provide that, for its purposes, the day the notice is mailed is counted. Have you ever heard the phrase, "A day late and a dollar short?"

It cannot be emphasized enough: The practice of law is like peeling an onion. Research, research, research. You will do this the rest of your life.


2015, Jeff M