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How missed deadlines can lead to legal malpractice

You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand the importance of meeting your deadlines. All it takes is one big late fee, and you realize those deadlines come with real consequences.

In the legal world, however, the consequences can be even more dire. When lawyers procrastinate or drag their heels, they can cost their clients thousands, tens of thousands or millions of dollars. And if you suffer such a loss, you may have reason to file for legal malpractice.

Rule 1.3

In a previous article, we looked at what makes for “competent” legal service. In short, your lawyer needs to understand the legal questions of your case, understand the appropriate laws and figure out how to apply those laws to your advantage. But that’s not the end of the service. Nor is it the whole of what’s considered acceptable. Knowing is a good start. And then your lawyer must actually get things done.

Rule 1.3 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct addresses the need for “diligence.” Under a former version of the Rules, diligence was tied to the idea of competence. A lawyer could provide “incompetent” service if he or she failed to meet deadlines or otherwise handle matters with diligence. But the newer rules emphasize diligence further by calling it out in its own section.

The Rules hold lawyers accountable for any failures in diligence that are:

  • Intentional
  • Reckless
  • Repeated
  • Grossly negligent

What might such failures look like? The Rules say that “reasonable diligence” means lawyers:

  • Act “with commitment and dedication to the interest of the client.” This is true even if the work inconveniences the attorney. It doesn’t mean that lawyers must pursue every possible tactic. But they cannot work against their clients’ interests—or even without a real concern for the outcome.
  • Remain attentive to their clients’ cases. This may mean prioritizing their work loads so that they can stay on top of the different deadlines for their cases. It may also mean maintaining clear communication with a client about any changing goals or scope.
  • Must meet key deadlines. If your attorney misses a deadline, you could lose your case on a technicality.

Rule 1.3 aims to protect you from missed deadlines and other instances of failed diligence.

Your guarantee against procrastination

Is timely service a key part of “competent” service? It used to be. But your attorney’s duties to deadlines, priorities and solid work now fall under the “diligence” heading. In no way does this shrink the importance of diligence. Instead, it should remind attorneys to make timely progress.

If they don’t—and your case suffers—you may have a malpractice claim on your hands.