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How do you know when a lawyer’s incompetent?

What do you think of when you hear the word “incompetence”? Maybe you imagine some homeowner and DIY plumber who tackles a project he can’t handle. The next thing you know, his basement’s flooded. But what if the first thing that comes to mind is your frustration with a bad attorney?

If you received incompetent counsel, you may have a legal malpractice case on your hands. You could reclaim some or all of the money you should have won in the first place. And your attorney doesn’t need to bumble so badly as the worst Hollywood lawyers to be guilty of incompetence.

Legal incompetence

California attorneys are legally obligated to provide competent counsel. Lawyers who act incompetently may be liable for the damage they cause their clients.

As the California State Bar defines it, incompetence means:

  • Repeatedly, recklessly or intentionally acting without competence. An attorney could act without competence by failing to explore the facts or legal questions of your case. Or an attorney might harm your case by ignoring key precedents or repeatedly failing to make arguments a better educated lawyer might make.
  • Acting without the necessary “learning and skill” to respond to the legal questions of your case. Lawyers need to understand the legal questions they’re addressing. A tax lawyer may not be ready to litigate your divorce. A divorce lawyer may not be ready to guide you through a business merger. You deserve someone properly trained in the subject matter at hand.
  • A psychological or mental condition that prevents the attorney from providing reasonable service. This doesn’t mean you need to prove your lawyer was a dummy. Instead, your lawyer may have failed you during a period of depression. Perhaps he or she was grappling with alcoholism or drug addiction. If your attorney’s personal problems spill into your case, they can spoil it. And you may be looking at incompetent service.

In short, the rules say your lawyer needs to understand your case, know the law and work to apply the law to your advantage. If your lawyer can’t do that on his or her own, they can reach out to other attorneys for the help they need. And if they don’t do that? You might need to sue for legal malpractice.

Suing for legal malpractice

If you think you have a malpractice case on your hands, you don’t want just any lawyer. Legal malpractice can be tricky. You want someone who understands the ins and outs of the matter. Someone with experience proving incompetence in the courtroom.