Licensing and Certification of Civil Attorneys

Authored by , LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

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A qualified civil attorney must have a proper set of licenses, certificates, and credentials.  Most law firms these days have a website where a civil attorney’s career path, achievements, and general biography can be accessed.  A potential client can see what kinds of cases and legal matters the civil attorney is experienced in, professional associations belonged to, any awards received, and law school honors obtained. 

Firstly, a civil attorney should graduate from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school.  The “fly-by-night” law schools exist for the sole reason of collecting fees from hopeful attorneys without the aptitude or proper prerequisites.  ABA-approved law schools must follow strict requirements, including having a favorable teacher / faculty ratio, teaching required subject areas, and requiring attendance of all students.  ABA-approved law schools should teach students their ethical responsibilities to clients and the public at large.  Students should get a broad education of the theories of law, not just the black and white “rules.”  Students should be trained to do pro bono work, and come to see it as a necessary part of their professional life. 

From an attorney’s website, a client can access the law school that the attorney attended.  There are many law school rankings that a client can search online.  While these rankings are not exactly fair, they generally reflect the scores that students received on entrance examinations, which, in turn, correlate roughly to intelligence.  Also, the rankings indicate the bar passage rate for graduating students. 

Making legal arguments requires creativity and intelligence.  The ability of a civil attorney is directly related to performance in law school.  A client can get an idea of the attorney’s grades in law school by seeing if they list “cum laude,” “magna cum laude,” or “summa cum laude” after their school name.  These phrases indicate that the student graduated in a certain top percentage of the class, such as 20%, 5%, or 1%.  

Also something to look for in the attorney’s law school experience is whether or not she was an editor for an academic journal or competed in “moot court.”  These two extracurricular activities are well-regarded, and indicative of a talented, intelligent law student.  The client can look for other associations, volunteer projects, and outside activities that the attorney participated in during law school. 

An important place to check is with local and state bar associations.  A civil lawyer must pass the “bar” examination for the state in which they will practice.  The “bar” is a test enabling an attorney to metaphorically pass over to the other side of the courtroom bar, which has historically divided laypersons from attorneys.  The state bar exam is a complex and thorough written test that commonly lasts several days

After passing the bar exam, a civil attorney must continue to be in good standing with her bar association by paying dues and adhering to certain rules governing professional conduct.  Violations of the rules of professional conduct will lead to attorney sanctions and punishments.  A civil lawyer’s full record can usually be accessed at your local bar chapter or internet site.

While in practice, civil attorneys are also responsible for fulfilling minimum continuing legal education (MCLE).  For instance, the California Bar requires 25 hours every three years in subjects such as:

• the prevention of substance abuse
• doing what is right, good, and ethical
• advocating for fairness and justice. 

An attorney might go on to get a master of laws (LLM) in their specialization, such as tax, securities regulation, or international law.  An LLM positively distinguishes a civil attorney.   

Finally, a potential client needs to look at an attorney’s online biography to ascertain any achievements, honors, prizes, or other recognition of success that the civil lawyer has had.  This could include winning a number of past cases.  The client does not have to understand every detail, since a long list of past achievements is better than a short one.  One should view all the professional associations that the attorney is actively involved in.  For example, an environmental lawyer should be a member of various environmental groups. 

A client can look at a lawyer’s work history, noting any big companies, law firms, or government agencies worked for.  In the legal field, the bigger (the more lawyers / employees) the firm or company, the more prestigious the position will be.  And in turn, the more prestigious positions usually hire more successful / competent attorneys.  However, civil attorneys in prestigious positions usually charge higher fee structures.

Finally, one of the most important qualifications of a civil attorney is reputation.  A potential client can simply call around to other attorneys practicing in related geographic or legal areas.  A client can check to see what other attorneys have to say about the civil lawyer in question.   However, this can be somewhat embarrassing or impractical for some clients.  In that case, and in the event that information about the civil lawyer is hard to come by, a lawyer matching service can be a smart way to go. 

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Last Modified: 06-26-2013 02:46 PM PDT

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