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The dangers of dabbling

Jeremy Rachlin

Jeremy Rachlin

My partners and I were discussing recently a referral that had come in from a good friend of the firm seeking assistance for one of his clients in a semi-complicated business issue. As much as we value the relationship with this referral source, we quickly and unanimously agreed that it was better to refer the potential client out to another attorney.

The conclusion: We don’t “dabble” in that practice area.

The dictionary definition of the word “dabble” is “to take part in an activity in a casual or superficial way.” So what is “dabbling” in the legal context? “Dabbling,” to me, is a “one-off”; a type of case that you do not customarily handle but that you will take on a one-time basis. It is not taking on a new kind of case with an expectation of handling similar kinds of cases in the future. To the contrary, exploring new kinds of cases is a normal and beneficial part of the growth of a young attorney as we develop practice areas of interest and expertise.

So why do young attorneys dabble? Perhaps we do it to make referral sources happy. We don’t want to ever be known as an attorney who will turn away a case. Perhaps we do it because we market ourselves as having broad-based civil practice. We don’t want to feel that we can no longer market ourselves the way we think casts the widest net. Perhaps we do it because we get a call from a family member or a family friend who knows of us as the one attorney in their iPhone contacts. Certainly, we don’t want to let our family and friends down.

But there is a dangerous potential reason — perhaps we do it because we think that the case can’t be that hard.

The problem with this way of thinking is we don’t know what we don’t know. If we don’t frequently practice in mechanic’s lien actions or employment law cases, for example, we might not know about the shorter statutes of limitations which often apply. If we don’t frequently practice in plaintiff’s personal injury cases, we might not know the strategy insurance companies use in negotiations. If we don’t frequently practice in probate cases, we might not realize the decedent still may have a filing obligation for their personal income tax returns for the year they died (let alone who has the authority to sign these returns after the decedent has passed). In short, each type of case has its own unique minefield of law and procedure.  And getting it wrong may put you squarely in the cross-hairs of Maryland Rule 19-301.1 (competence).

So how should attorneys (both young and more seasoned) handle a situation that might feel like “dabbling”?

First, be comfortable owning up to your own limitations. The referring source is likely going to be even more grateful to you if you own up to the fact that you might not be the right one for the case than if you take on the case and find yourself treading in water way too deep.

Second, make the referral out to a competent attorney with whom you have cross-referral relationships. Let’s say, for example, you primarily practice estate planning and you have a friend who you meet at a bar association event who primarily practices criminal and traffic defense. While you likely can’t formalize an exclusive referral relationship, you can make a referral out to your friend for an incarcerable DUI offense and have a reasonable hope that your friend will return the favor when he/she crosses paths with somebody who needs a trust drafted.

Finally, you can always associate. If there really is a compelling reason why you personally need to still be involved in a case in an unfamiliar area of law, associate with a trusted colleague in that area of practice. You may be able to delegate responsibilities such that you are charged with communicating case updates and options to the client while the attorney with whom you have associated handles court appearances, negotiations, procedural matters and more substantive strategic issues.

If you are the kind of attorney who can’t resist dabbling, you should have an attorney on speed dial who does not dabble in attorney grievance cases.

Jeremy Rachlin is a principal at Bulman, Dunie, Burke & Feld Chtd. in Bethesda, where he practices estates and trusts and civil litigation.