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The Changing Definition Of "Competence" In The Legal Profession

I recently had one of those "aha moments", and it related to my favorite topic: Lawyer wellbeing. What a surprise-- not that the insight finally came, but rather, that it was so positive.

It all started with an ongoing conversation about the concept of lawyer "competence" (particularly as defined in both the ABA model rules and the various State rules of professional conduct). Not surprisingly, the requirement of "competence" is set forth very first rule: "A lawyer shall be competent...." (emphasis added)-- but, what does that really mean?

Well, as it turns out, the definition of "competence" is evolving-- slowly, but surely. The legal profession can change (has changed in the past) and will continue change in the future. For many, that won't come as a particularly profound revelation but for me, it was the twinkle of a thought that started me wondering.

For decades, law students spent hours learning to master the art of shepardizing (a tedious method that was devised to research the law). Today, however, thanks to software and computers that are programmed to research automatically, most young lawyers don't even know what shepardizing is (or was). And physical libraries (which were once revered and built to be the centerpiece of a law firm) no longer even exist. That's called "change".

Now for the full "aha moment": Will the legal profession ever fully embrace the notion of lawyer wellbeing? To date, the profession seems to have acknowledged the idea, and paid lip service by hiring well-intentioned individuals who are charged with the job of improving lawyer wellbeing, but most every one of those individuals are under-funded and under-staffed. Is that likely to change?

I think, the answer is "yes", because there is precedent for change. All that's lacking-- the final piece of the puzzle-- is the will to question the status quo. Precedent? Check. The will to make another change? TBD. But-- after years of being pessimistic-- I am now optimistic.

If a "competent" lawyer is well-versed in the intricacies of relevant technology (as many State rules of professional conduct now require) then surely, a "competent" lawyer will soon be required to be well.  

Figuring out how wellness is to be defined or measured, and determining whether wellbeing is mandatory or precatory, will certainly be a big part of the change I foresee, but the legal profession is up to the task.

Be the change you want to see in your life-- both personally and professionally. And to encourage that change, maybe, further amend the "competence" rule to require wellbeing!


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