The practice of law requires state licensure. All fifty states have criteria governing admission to practice within their states. Although requirements may vary slightly, almost all states require graduation from an accredited law school, passing the “bar exam” (referring to the professional bar association of that state), and submitting to a review and investigation of one’s personal background for assessment of “character and fitness” to practice law. Accordingly, all new lawyers start their profession with an acceptable level of professional competency (as determined by graduation from law school and passage of a comprehensive bar exam which gauges their professional knowledge of the law), as well as an acceptable level of character and fitness to practice law (as determined by the state bar review board).
Each state also has adopted codes of conduct, disciplinary rules, and adjudicative boards to address issues of misconduct once attorneys are admitted to practice. The American Bar Association also promulgates and promotes its Model Rules of Professional Conduct (adopted by two-thirds of the states as of 2002).
Additionally, virtually all states now require periodic “updating” of technical and/or academic skills by the mandatory completion of a certain number of classroom or seminar hours each year. Attorneys may generally choose the topics in which these hours are completed, but there is usually a requirement that a minimum number of hours be completed in the area of “ethics.” Attorneys who fail to complete these courses may not renew their license to practice for the upcoming year. Additional fines or penalties may apply.
That said, trained, licensed attorneys nonetheless may engage in questionable conduct, display a seeming lack of skill, or otherwise neglect or fail to properly render those duties owed to their clients, their adversaries, or to the judicial system as a whole, in their day-to-day practice of law. For those indiscretions and failures that have resulted in harm to a client, a lawsuit for legal malpractice may be an appropriate remedy.