Lawyers’ ethics concerns prevail as more Phoenix attorneys open own practices

Posted by: Phoenix Arizona Criminal Defense Lawyer

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, continuing this week in Tucson, has chosen a seminar topic fit for the times.

Clark, a partner in the law firm of 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 teaching 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 knowledge.

If a lawyer is deemed incompetent or cannot represent a client properly, Adams said, the lawyer could be removed from the case. Judges also can issue a warning or fine, and in the most extreme cases the state bar can impose 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.

Clark is a member of the group that oversees solo and small firms for the State Bar of Arizona, which is working to help in another way, by connecting inexperienced attorneys with mentors.

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 to preserve, or at least reroute, that knowledge flow.

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

Rick DeBruhl, State Bar of Arizona spokesman, 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.”
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