Technical Competence Now Required for Pennsylvania Lawyers

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In October 2013 the PA Supreme Court adopted changes to the rules of professional conduct affecting PA attorneys, related to the issue of technical competence.  The rules now require PA attorneys to attain an appropriate level of technical competence and employ modern technology in their law practices, to the extent that it will improve their ability to represent their clients.   These changes were suggested by the American Bar Association, and many states have now adopted similar rules.

When I first began practicing law in 1982, once you got your law license, you were golden.  All you had to do was pay a small annual registration fee to the PA Supreme Court, not break any laws or rules relating to the conduct of the profession, and you could practice forever.  Sometime in the 1990’s, changes began to occur.  First, a fund was set up for victims of attorneys who stole or frittered away client money in their control, and the annual registration fee suddenly zoomed to over $70 per year.  Around the same time, disciplinary rules relating to lawyers were instituted to require that every lawyer, in order to maintain their right to practice law in PA, take CLE, or Continuing Legal Education courses every year, 12 “substantive” hours per year (courses relating to changes or developments in different fields of law) and one “ethics” credit, course relating to lawyers’ ethical obligations to their clients or the courts.  Since then, we get an annual print-out of all CLE courses we have taken during the past year, which have to be reported to the Disciplinary Board of the PA Supreme Court, to notify us whether or not we are in compliance with this CLE requirement.  If not, our license to practice law is suspended until we bring ourselves into compliance.

It seemed to me that this requirement was a no-brainer.  In the U.S., we follow the tradition set up by British law, of following legal precedent.  That means that if an appeals court in our state or the U.S. Supreme Court renders a decision which changes the way a law has been interpreted in the past, or interprets a new law, that decision is binding on all of the trial courts in the country.   Also, if a new law is passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, it is also binding on the courts unless they find it unconstitutional.   How else could we find out about these decisions, or changes in the statutes (laws passed by the PA Legislature), if we didn’t take refresher courses?   12 hours a year of refresher courses didn’t seem to be much of a burden.  Do you really want to employ a lawyer who doesn’t keep up with changes in the law?

Then came the computer revolution, the internet, emails, Facebook, and smartphones.  I remember when facsimile (fax) machines gave us the ability to exchange copies of documents, including signatures, in minutes.  Seemed amazing then, but now that scanning documents and email have become the preferred mode of exchanging documents and fast communications between lawyers and clients, it seems quaint, sort of old-fashioned, when a lawyer wants to fax you something.  A few years ago, the Orphans Court in Allegheny County (wills, estates, guardianships, and adoptions division of the court) began to require lawyers to put email addresses on court papers they filed.  That seemed controversial, since many lawyers didn’t personally have their own computers and had to rely on their office staff to receive and review their emails.  However, with the availability and ease of powerful lightweight laptops and tablet computers, and the advent of smartphones, most lawyers (and everyone else) now access their email regularly.

Now the ABA and the PA Supreme Court have made it official.  Lawyers must adapt to and keep up in some way with technological advances affecting their profession or step out of the way.  So, here is a new way to judge the competence of an attorney you are considering hiring:  Does he or she  give you an email address and encourage communication through that medium?  Does he or she have a website? Dinosaurs are fun to study as kids (and grown-up paleontologists), but do you really want to be represented by one?

~ Barbara J. Shah, Esquire

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