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Rule 1.1 Competence

A lawyer shall not handle a legal matter that the lawyer knows or should know he or she is not competent to handle without associating with a lawyer who is competent to handle the matter. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.


Legal Knowledge and Skill

[1] In determining whether a lawyer employs the requisite knowledge and skill in a particular matter, relevant factors include the relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter, the lawyer's general experience, the lawyer's training and experience in the field in question, the preparation and study the lawyer is able to give the matter, and whether it is feasible to refer the matter to, or associate or consult with, a lawyer of established competence in the field in question. In many instances, the required proficiency is that of a general practitioner. Expertise in a particular field of law may be required in some circumstances.

[2] A lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar. A newly admitted lawyer can be as competent as a practitioner with long experience. Some important legal skills, such as the analysis of precedent, the evaluation of evidence, and legal drafting, are required in all legal problems. Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge. A lawyer can provide adequate representation in a wholly novel field through necessary study. Competent representation can also be provided through the association of a lawyer of established competence in the field in question.

[3] In an emergency, a lawyer may give advice or assistance in a matter in which the lawyer does not have the skill ordinarily required where referral to, or consultation or association with, another lawyer would be impractical. Even in an emergency, however, assistance should be limited to that which is reasonably necessary under the circumstances, for ill-considered action under emergency conditions can jeopardize the client's interest.

[4] A lawyer may accept representation where the requisite level of competence can be achieved by reasonable preparation. This applies as well to a lawyer who is appointed as counsel for an unrepresented person.

Thoroughness and Preparation

[5] Competent handling of a particular matter includes inquiry into, and analysis of, the factual and legal elements of the problem, and use of methods and procedures meeting the standards of competent practitioners. It also includes adequate preparation. The required attention and preparation are determined, in part, by what is at stake; major litigation and complex transactions ordinarily require more extensive treatment than matters of lesser complexity or consequence. An agreement between the lawyer and the client regarding the scope of the representation may limit the matters for which the lawyer is responsible. See Rule 1.2(c).

Retaining or Contracting with Other Lawyers

[6] Before a lawyer retains or contracts with other lawyers outside the lawyer’s own firm to provide or assist in the provision of legal services to a client, the lawyer should ordinarily obtain informed consent from the client and must reasonably believe that the other lawyers’ services will contribute to the competent and ethical representation of the client. See also Rules 1.2 (allocation of authority), 1.4 (communication with client), 1.5(e) (fee division), 1.6 (confidentiality), and 5.5(a) (unauthorized practice of law). The reasonableness of the decision to retain or contract with other lawyers outside the lawyer’s own firm will depend upon the circumstances, including the education, experience, and reputation of the nonfirm lawyers; the nature of the services assigned to the nonfirm lawyers; and the legal protections, professional conduct rules, and ethical environments of the jurisdictions in which the services will be performed, particularly relating to confidential information.

[7] When lawyers from more than one law firm are providing legal services to the client on a particular matter, the lawyers ordinarily should consult with each other and the client about the scope of their respective representations and the allocation of responsibility among them. See Rule 1.2. When making allocations of responsibility in a matter pending before a tribunal, lawyers and parties may have additional obligations that are a matter of law beyond the scope of these Rules.

Maintaining Competence

[8] To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with the technology relevant to the lawyer’s practice, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.

Distinguishing Professional Negligence

[9] An error by a lawyer may constitute professional malpractice under the applicable standard of care and subject the lawyer to civil liability. However, conduct that constitutes a breach of the civil standard of care owed to a client giving rise to liability for professional malpractice does not necessarily constitute a violation of the ethical duty to represent a client competently. A lawyer who makes a good-faith effort to be prepared and to be thorough will not generally be subject to professional discipline, although he or she may be subject to a claim for malpractice. For example, a single error or omission made in good faith, absent aggravating circumstances, such as an error while performing a public records search, is not usually indicative of a violation of the duty to represent a client competently.

[10] Repeated failure to perform legal services competently is a violation of this rule. A pattern of incompetent behavior demonstrates that a lawyer cannot or will not acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for minimally competent practice. For example, a lawyer who repeatedly provides legal services that are inadequate or who repeatedly provides legal services that are unnecessary is not fulfilling his or her duty to be competent. This pattern of behavior does not have to be the result of a dishonest or sinister motive, nor does it have to result in damages to a client giving rise to a civil claim for malpractice in order to cast doubt on the lawyer's ability to fulfill his or her professional responsibilities.

History Note: Statutory Authority G.S. 84-23

Adopted by the Supreme Court July 24, 1997

Amendments Approved by the Supreme Court: March 1, 2003; October 2, 2014

Ethics Opinion Notes

RPC 198. Opinion explores the ethical responsibilities of stand-by defense counsel who are instructed to take over the defense in a capital murder case without an opportunity to prepare.

RPC 199. Opinion addresses the ethical responsibilities of a lawyer appointed to represent a criminal defendant in a capital case who, in good faith, believes he lacks the experience and ability to represent the defendant competently.

RPC 216. Opinion rules that a lawyer may use the services of a nonlawyer independent contractor to search a title provided the nonlawyer is properly supervised by the lawyer.

99 Formal Ethics Opinion 12. Opinion rules that when a lawyer appears with a debtor at a meeting of creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding as a favor to the debtor's lawyer, the lawyer is representing the debtor and all of the ethical obligations attendant to legal representation apply.

2002 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. Opinion rules that whether electronic mail should be retained as a part of a client's file is a legal decision to be made by the lawyer.

2007 Formal Ethics Opinion 12. Opinion rules that a lawyer may outsource limited legal support services to a foreign lawyer or a nonlawyer (collectively "foreign assistants") provided the lawyer properly selects and supervises the foreign assistants, ensures the preservation of client confidences, avoids conflicts of interests, discloses the outsourcing, and obtains the client's advanced informed consent.

2008 Formal Ethics Opinion 14. Opinion rules that it is not an ethical violation when a lawyer fails to attribute or obtain consent when incorporating into his own brief, contract, or pleading excerpts from a legal brief, contract, or pleading written by another lawyer. .

2009 Formal Ethics Opinion 17. Opinion rules that whether a lawyer rendering a title opinion to a title insurer should tack to an owner’s policy of title insurance or a mortgagee’s (lender’s) policy is a question of standard of care and outside the purview of the Ethics Committee

2011 Formal Ethics Opinion 10. Opinion rules that a lawyer may advertise on a website that offers daily discounts to consumers where the website company’s compensation is a percentage of the amount paid to the lawyer if certain disclosures are made and certain conditions are satisfied.

2012 Formal Ethics Opinion 10. Opinion rules a lawyer may not participate as a network lawyer for a company providing litigation or administrative support services for clients with a particular legal/business problem unless certain conditions are satisfied.

2014 Formal Ethics Opinion 4. Opinion rules that a lawyer may send a subpoena for medical records to an entity covered by HIPAA without providing the assurances necessary for the entity to comply with the subpoena as set out in 45 C.F.R. §164.512(e)(ii).

2014 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. Opinion rules a lawyer must advise a civil litigation client about the legal ramifications of the client’s postings on social media as necessary to represent the client competently. The lawyer may advise the client to remove postings on social media if the removal is done in compliance with the rules and law on preservation and spoliation of evidence.

2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 4. Opinion analyzes a lawyer’s professional responsibilities when she discovers that she made an error that may adversely impact the client’s case.

2020 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. Opinion discusses a lawyer’s professional responsibility to inform clients about relevant, potential fraudulent attempts to improperly acquire client funds during a real property transaction.

2021 Formal Ethics Opinion 2. Opinion discusses a lawyer’s professional responsibility to safeguard entrusted funds by identifying and avoiding purported transactions involving counterfeit checks.

2023 Formal Ethics Opinion 1. Opinion clarifies a lawyer’s professional responsibility when closing and/or selling a law practice and when handling aged client files.

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