The Lawyer's Duty of Competence in a Climate-Imperiled World

John C. Dernbach, Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Irma S. Russell, University of Missouri - Kansas City, School of Law
Matthew Bogoshian, University of California, Davis School of Law


The United States has more than 1.3 million practicing lawyers. Under Model Rule 1.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and every state’s rules of conduct, each of these lawyers owes clients competent representation. Under the rule, “[c]ompetent representation requires the knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the services.” While law and rules will undoubtedly change in response to the climate crisis, the duty of competence does not await such change or legal reform. The ubiquitous nature of the duty of competence means it is applicable to each lawyer now and will continue to evolve as the client’s needs and the perils in the real world change.

The Article first examines the concept of competence for lawyers and other professionals and provides examples of how professional competence evolves under changing circumstances. It explores the mandate and structure of Model Rule 1.1 and identifies the related issue of professional malpractice. Then it applies the concept of competence to the legal professional’s role as new facts and conditions concerning climate change emerge. It also describes guidance on these responsibilities issued by the Law Society of England and Wales in early 2023. The Article next describes the benefits of systems leadership skills and capacities as a means to effectively practice law as standards of competence evolve. We are not arguing that leadership is included in the duty of competence. But the increasing pace of the climate crisis, and the increasingly sophisticated tools and practices that lawyers now have to address the crisis, expand what lawyers should reasonably do for clients. Finally, the Article identifies principles for climate-competent lawyering.