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I just started at a large firm 2 months ago after practicing in a small firm for about 2 years out of school. I've already had a few transactions/cases come in, and I've taken one on, and referred another out. The one we took I ended up passing to an associate in litigation, because my work is pretty much solely transactional. I could have done it myself, but thought it would be better to pass it off.

The one I referred out points to one of the downsides of big firm practice. We are not all things to all people, so there is certain work (say, residential real estate) that we just do not do. But that means I get to refer work to my friends and other acquaintances, which I enjoy.

Carolyn Elefant

I have always interpreted the provision on lawyer competency requirements very loosely. Because I was trained as a lawyer, I have never felt (with few exceptions), that there are cases that are beyond my ability to handle and consequently, I have always told clients that I will be able to handle a matter even if I have never examined those exact issues before. The secret to lawyer competence is thoroughness and diligence - I have always been able to figure out what I need to do by (1) reading background materials and law review articles; (2) reading case precedent; (3) speaking with agency or court staff as needed and (4) calling the network of attorneys who I have on hand for advice (I don't worry about asking for work for free because I give out enough free advice myself). I have seen many lawyers who make mistakes - some are experienced attorneys who are over-confident and don't check on whether the law has changed and others are less experienced attorneys who don't take the time to ask questions (or are afraid of looking stupid).

Of course, there are many matters that come my way where the learning curve is too great to warrant my involvement or where I simply don't have an interest. These, I refer out. But I am confident that if I were so inclined, I (or any other attorney, for goodness sake) could handle the matter competently.


Since our firm sometimes defends legal malpractice claims, I am too aware of the very real danger of being sued for malpractice (even if the suit has no merit). So as a 4th year attorney, I am extremely conservative about this issue. Fact is, I am not about to pick up any multi-million dollar cases in the immediate future. What cases I do pick up on my own without partner referrals, are smaller fish. So if a case that comes my way has huge stakes but minimal dollar value, I always ask myself, "Is it worth ruining my reputation if I screw this case up, just to land this client?" To give an example, if IBM came knocking on my door and said, "UCL, we want you personally to represent us on an antitrust appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court," sure, to heck with malpractice risks, I'll take the case. It's a sliding scale.

My small firm background, and current big-firm-which-sends-junior-associates-to-court-frequently background, have given me confidence to take less daunting cases on my own with little supervision. Plus, in almost all the truly complex and big-deal cases I work on with my partners, I really do run my own show. I check in with the partners for all big decisions, but 99% of my recommended decisions are granted, and 99% of my important letters and motions are approved (and less important letters and motions aren't even reviewed; I just file 'em). So at this point in my career, I am experiencing the transition between being a "baby lawyer" and being on my own, reflecting the increasing confidence my partners have in me.

I don't know how typical biglaw litigation associates do it. Of my friends at the top biglaw outfits in the nation, who are at the same "age" in terms of how long they've practiced law, I would trust NONE to handle a case I referred to them. Writing research memos and reviewing documents does not a litigator make.


I should add that this question isn't really one that's a problem for me in a law firm environment, but it may be for a solo practitioner. Any client I do pick up on my own, I let my principal partner know about it and he talks the case over with me, makes sure I'm cc'ing him on my activities, and he monitors my work. I had a single case that I was very disappointed to turn down, involving intellectual property issues, that I couldn't keep because our firm does not IP work right now and there were no senior partners to oversee me. That was a bummer, but it's the only time it's happened. All other business I've attracted to the firm, I've taken on their cases.

If I were a sole practitioner, like Carolyn and perhaps like you in the future some day, I think I'd be willing to take more risks. But, I would make sure I had a mentor who I could trust to pick up the phone every time I called with questions.


I am a biglaw corporate associate. While I do tend to give free advice to my friends and family on random areas of the law (predominantly employment law), I would not 'officially' advise on these areas because I am not a specialist. In addition, there are very few people that I mix with who would ever need high-level corporate advice.

At my firm, all clients are 'owned' by a partner (to the extent that a partners name must be on every file). As such, the few instructions that I have generated (generally small joint ventures/mergers or opinions) have always needed to be accepted, approved and hopefully supervised by a partner.

I would hate to act without supervision. Yes, I am a lawyer, yes I went to lawschool and know a bit about a lot of diverse areas of the law, but I am not a specialist in those areas. As an intermediate corporate lawyer, I only now feel that I am beginning to be competent in that field. The law is a complex maze, and it very easy to miss things if you don't deal with it on a daily basis.

With regard to Carolyn's comments, I think that she is probably technically correct: yes, most lawyers could answer most problems, given enough time and tenacity. However, without being rude to Carolyn, I have seen lawyers who are probably very competent general practitioners screw up corporate deals because they don't have the expertise. In addition, the quality of the work that is generated by some lawyers who try and do everything is appalling. Yes, a general practitioner may be able to try a case one day and then draft a S&P agreement the next day, but in my own experience that S&P agreement will be full of holes.

Bruce Dickinson

Big law firms have processes for the acceptance of business. (Heck, they have processes for everything, but that's another story altogether.) This is--in part--because big firms are in the business of using their main resource, attorney time, most efficiently. From the Firm's point of view, an associate that is doing small-potatoes work for a friend instead could be doing fully-collectible, high-rate work for a Valued Firm Client.

So when Associate asks the Firm for permission (and, by the way, Associate had better ask permission or s/he will be meeting--unpleasantly--with the Risk Management Committee) to do work for Friend, the Firm will need to assess:

(1) The creditworthiness of Friend;
(2) The value of the work; and
(3) The potential future value of Friend.

(1) is dealt with in part when the Firm tells Associate about the retainer required from all new Firm clients. This will be a significant, and non-negotiable (for Associate) number. At this point, the "new business" discussion is usually over. Unless Associate can swing the representation into a Pro Bono representation, which is not always easy.

(2) only matters if (1) is resolved to the Firm's satisfaction.

(3) can -- rarely -- trump (1) and (2), but only if Friend is the son of a Valued Firm Client or of a Potential Valued Firm Client.

As a practical matter, big firm rates are too high for most matters that are avalable for generation by associates. The people who control high-margin legal business tend to have grey hair and tend to like to dole out that legal business to people with experience, not attorneys who by definition have less than a decade under their belts.

This is true for most litigation, for corporate & securities work, and for most bankruptcy work. I have no idea whether it holds true in true specialty practices.


I think this idea of competence starts early and expands as you go on. For me, it was a big thing to get to a stage where someone would ask me to write a letter of demand or draft basic pleadings and for me to think that I had the competence to do it pretty well.

As time has gone on, the breadth and complexity of cases which I feel competent to take on has increased.

At our firm, I take all the calls for referral matters from advertising, referral services etc and then direct them to whoever should handle them. As a part of this I have had to learn how to take preliminary instructions on a range of different areas of law, so that I am able to identify those things to the people that take on the case.

I think that there is certainly a value in increasing competence in at least the basics of different areas of the law. It means that if I get something which I need to refer, then I can still have a preliminary conversation and make the client feel that I (as a representative of the firm) am competent, intelligent and professional, even in areas which aren't my primary area of expertise.


I know this is a little old now, but the topic got me curious about the comments, when then got me thinking about where I stand.

I basically agree with QM with one possible exception. I started out doing some very basic debt collection files when I began my articles. Withing maybe 3 months, I felt completely competant on those files.

As I became more experienced, I felt completely competant on more complex and difficult matters to the extent that, now, I can provide at least preliminary advice on nearly every area of law I can think of. Since I do volunteer work giving legal advice, this is something I do fairly regularly and with confidence.

Perhaps the only areas that I would avoid would be specialised areas like tax, IP, and corporate mergers. But since I have no interest in them, it's never been an issue I've had to face.

I guess it's a little different for me because we have the solicitor/barrister distinction here and I can always seek counsel's opinion if I'm not completely sure of myself. With that disclaimer, I would feel comfortable taking on any case that I come across, including in an area I've not tackled before.

It probably helps that I'm one of those people who tends to know a little bit about most subjects rather than a lot about one subject. So, when it comes to law, I will know the basic issues to spot and questions to ask in practically every scenario, and I will know what areas to research to get the answer I need. I believe that you don't need to -know- the answer to take on a case, you just need to know where to -find- the answer.

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