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June 27, 2011 Practice Points

Ethical Considerations When Practicing in New Areas of Law

By Allie Clemency

During these troubling economic times, traditional "big firm" legal positions are scarce.  Law firms across the country have laid off thousands of associates and staff members, and recent law school graduates face a seemingly impenetrable job market. Consequently, lawyers are transitioning practice areas or striking out on their own in an attempt to meet the unique demands—or rather opportunities—of today's legal market. Yet, as lawyers begin to "dabble" (i.e. take on matters falling outside their usual areas of expertise), they must be cognizant of the attendant ethical concerns. In a recent interview with J. Craig Anderson, Karen Clark, a Phoenix attorney and instructor at the State Bar of Arizona's 78th annual convention, offered lawyers considering taking on matters in new practice areas a solemn piece of advice: Stay educated.

Practicing in a new area of law raises a host of ethical concerns, including among others competency. Lawyers that venture into new practice areas without the proper preparation and education may find themselves as the recipients of serious judicial reprimand. Judges may order lawyers to appear at special hearings to evaluate the lawyer's knowledge when the judge has reason to doubt the lawyer's competency in a matter. If a judge finds that a lawyer lacks the necessary competency or cannot otherwise adequately represent a client, the judge may impose a variety of sanctions, such as removal from the case, warnings, fines, and even temporary suspension or disbarment.

To avoid the potential ethical pitfalls of "dabbling," the State Bar of Arizona recommends that lawyers take advantage continuing legal education opportunities. The State Bar of Arizona's annual convention provides an accessible forum in which lawyers can network and obtain continuing legal education. Additionally, the small firm and solo practice division of the State Bar of Arizona is working to pair new and transitioning lawyers with mentors. With the right preparation and education, lawyers can ethically venture into new practice areas.

Allie Clemency is at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

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