Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lawyers try new specialties

Contrary to the belief that lawyers thrive in troubled times, law firms across the country have laid off thousands of associates and staff members since the beginning of 2009, and entry-level positions for recent law-school grads have become far more scarce and difficult to obtain.

As a result, many attorneys in Arizona and elsewhere have opened small practices, either alone or with a partner or two, with most focusing on topical areas of law such as bankruptcy and foreclosure prevention.

With that in mind, Phoenix attorney Karen Clark, a lead instructor at the State Bar of Arizona's 78th annual convention, scheduled this week in Tucson, has chosen a seminar topic fit for the times.

Clark, a partner in law firm Adams & Clark PC, whose specialties include legal malpractice, said there are a number of ethical concerns Arizona lawyers must consider when striking out on their own for the first time or changing specialties to meet the needs of today's clients.

Clark was scheduled to lead a seminar on Wednesday, the convention's opening day, called "Changing times, changing practices: Ethical and malpractice considerations when practicing in a new area of law."

Clark said she chose that topic because it is especially relevant at a time when many attorneys are taking on clients whose needs fall outside their areas of expertise. In the legal profession, it's known as "dabbling," she said.

It's not unusual for lawyers to change specialties multiple times throughout their careers. But venturing into unfamiliar territory without adequate preparation can be detrimental to an attorney's clients and career, Clark said.

"They have to educate themselves before venturing into new areas of law," Clark said.

Five other Arizona attorneys involved in legal ethics, bankruptcy and criminal law were scheduled to participate in the seminar, including Clark's law-firm partner, Ralph Adams.

According to Clark and Adams, Arizona's courts have little patience or sympathy for lawyers who are clearly in over their heads because of inexperience, especially if that inexperience leads to mistakes that jeopardize their clients' interests.

If a judge has reason to believe that an attorney lacks adequate understanding of the relevant legal principles and procedures to effectively represent a client, they said, that attorney can be ordered to appear at a special hearing set up to evaluate the lawyer's level of knowledge.

If there is probable cause to believe a lawyer is incompetent or cannot represent a client properly, Adams said, the lawyer could be removed from the case and face additional sanctions such as a warning, fines, temporary suspension from practicing law or even disbarment - meaning that attorney would not be able to practice for a minimum of five years and would then have to reapply to become an attorney again.

Clark said dabbling raises other ethical issues in addition to basic questions about competency.

For instance, lawyers operating outside their fields of expertise cannot charge clients for the time it takes to learn a new specialty.

As the attorney who oversees solo and small firms for the State Bar of Arizona, Clark said she is trying to tackle that issue from a second angle, in addition to teaching ethics.

In an economic slump, it's more difficult for young or inexperienced lawyers to connect with experienced mentors who can pass on what they know to the next generation.

Legal-industry analysts have expressed concern over a potential disruption in the traditional flow of knowledge from senior partners to young associates that could result from the deep cutbacks law firms have enacted during the past few years.

In Arizona, Clark said, the Bar association is working to strengthen and expand mentorship opportunities.

In general, legal experts say professional and trade-association gatherings take on greater importance amid a tight job market, often becoming a vital source of guidance and opportunities to meet potential mentors and employers.

State Bar of Arizona spokesman Rick DeBruhl said it is practically a given that many of the attendees at this year's event will be looking for more than simply an opportunity to be educated.

"A prime reason to go to the convention is to get continuing legal education," DeBruhl said. "I would guess the next most popular reason is networking."

By J. Craig Anderson, The Arizona Republic

Source: The Arizona Republic

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