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When do ethics violations become grounds for legal malpractice?

California attorneys need to uphold standards for ethical behavior. The failure to uphold those standards can come with serious consequences.

Unethical attorneys may harm their clients in many ways. That’s why the California State Bar maintains and enforces a set of rules for ethical conduct. Still, these violations aren’t always grounds for malpractice suits—even if they involve criminal activity. So, how do you know when you might have a valid malpractice claim against your attorney?

The difference between unethical behavior and legal malpractice

You likely started looking for information about legal malpractice after your attorney performed poorly or in a way that you believed was unethical. According to the State Bar, some of the most common complaints that people make against attorneys include:

  • The attorney stopped responding to phone calls and emails
  • The attorney didn’t notify the client about a settlement payment
  • The attorney accepted a settlement without consulting the client

All these complaints could reveal serious ethical breaches. Any of them could lead the State Bar to suspend or even disbar an attorney. But none of them would necessarily result in a successful malpractice claim. The last of these complaints might be the most likely, but that’s because legal malpractice involves more than just the attorney’s bad actions. To win a legal malpractice case, you also need to offer proof that the attorney’s bad actions led to real damages.

While ethics violations may point toward an attorney’s liability in a matter—as negligence, incompetence or a betrayal of trust—they don’t necessarily reveal damages. Somehow, you need to show that those actions harmed the potential outcome of your case. Often, this means your malpractice case forces you to revisit the issues and evidence of the original case. You may need to win this “trial within a trial” to show you would have won in the first place had it not been for your attorney’s malpractice.

You don’t need unethical attorneys to suffer legal malpractice

Just as an attorney’s ethical lapses may not rise to legal malpractice, you can suffer from legal malpractice even when your attorney acts in good faith.

Some attorneys may have all the best intentions when they take on cases they don’t fully understand. But when they dabble in areas of law with which they’re not familiar, they may misapply the law, follow bad strategies and otherwise prove themselves incompetent. These may be smart, well-intentioned people, but when their mistakes cost you hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you may no longer care about their intentions. You might be more concerned that they clearly failed to demonstrate an understanding of the law.

Proving legal malpractice can be tricky

Because the standards for legal malpractice involve more than just your attorney’s bad actions, malpractice cases can be tricky. It’s common to find yourself fighting two cases at once—and fighting them both against your former lawyer.

If you think your attorney committed malpractice, you want to work with an attorney who has experience winning these types of cases. You deserve a clear-eyed evaluation of your case, grounded in the facts and an understanding of what the case requires. After all, when you file a legal malpractice claim, you do so to get your life back on track, not to assume extra legal woes.