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Ethics Question of the Week: Can I represent a client in a field of law I'm not familiar with?

Q. A client has asked me to handle her divorce, but I’ve never done one. Can I ethically represent her?

A. Lawyer competence to handle any given matter is addressed in RPC 1.1. Comment [2] provides that “a lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar” and that “a lawyer can provide adequate representation in a wholly novel field through necessary study.” In addition, Comment [4] says that “a lawyer may accept representation where the requisite level of competence can be achieved by reasonable preparation.”  A novice lawyer could also associate with a lawyer of “established competence” in the field at issue in order to competently represent the client.

ISBA members can browse past ISBA Ethics Opinions at www.isba.org/ethics

Disclaimer.  These questions are representative of calls received on the ISBA’s ethics hotline.  The information provided below is meant as an educational tool to highlight potentially applicable Illinois RPC or other ethics resources that might help the lawyer answer the question posed.  The information provided isn’t legal advice.  Because every situation is different, often complex, and the law is constantly evolving, you shouldn’t rely upon this general information without conducting your own research.    

Posted on March 5, 2014 by Chris Bonjean
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Member Comments (3)

Dude, don't do it.

Do not learn at your client's expense, it will not end well. Volunteer at a pro bono clinic where a) someone will show you the ropes, and b) you're covered under their malpractice carrier.

Don't get me wrong, nothing bad about trying to learn new things. Just do it in a way that prevents the client from being a guinea pig. Many legal aid programs in Chicago are begging for help, give them a ring and they'll be happy to have you on board.

there are a few things to consider. First, are you covered for malpractice? Second, do you really care about your professional reputation? Third, do you care about your proposed client getting competent representation? Fourth, do you really need the money? Fifth, how much of your life do you want to waste on defending your inexperienced actions on "behalf" of your client during the ARDC matter? Sixth, do you believe that anyone can handle a family law matter, notwithstanding any complexities?
When you get the answers to the above, you should be wise enough to latch on to an experienced practitioner. Remember, family law involves emotions more than statutes.

I do divorce and have run into cases where the other lawyer is not well versed in the law. Frankly, family law is not the place to run blind with a case. There are a lot of pitfalls, the area touches on a lot of areas of law at once (contract, family, criminal, real property, bankruptcy, school law, etc.) and you might find it hard to know what your blind spots are without an experienced attorney to assist you.

I don't think you should never pick up a case and learn on the job. I think residential real estate closings are something you can wing. So are most traffic tickets (beware the lure of DUI's though).

If you are still feeling brave, call me (I'm in the directory) and talk to me about the case. If it is simple enough and you are practicing in the Chicago and surrounding suburbs, I am happy to walk you through it. If it is relatively simple and you are outside those areas, you may want to try to make a friend who appreciates your cookies, bottles of wine, etc. in your county.

Really, give me a call.