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What Are the Dangers of Legal Malpractice?

Though most lawyers strive for excellence in their work, there is always a chance that an aspect of a case may be mismanaged, often to the client’s detriment. This is where claims of legal malpractice arise.

What is defined as legal malpractice?

As the name implies, legal malpractice is a type of professional negligence committed by a lawyer. It occurs when a lawyer fails to provide competent and diligent representation to a client, resulting in harm to the client. To prosecute a successful legal malpractice claim against their lawyer, a client must show not only that the lawyer was negligent, but also that they would have obtained a better result if their lawyer had acted as a reasonably careful attorney.

What forms can legal malpractice take?

Legal malpractice can take many forms, including:

  • Failure to file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations
  • Failure to investigate a case thoroughly or to uncover crucial evidence
  • Failure to advise a client of their legal rights
  • Failure to communicate with a client
  • Failure to represent a client zealously
  • Failure to prepare thoroughly
  • Failure to appear in court
  • Missed deadlines
  • Conflict of interest with the client
  • Lacking the necessary knowledge or expertise to handle a case effectively
  • Misleading a client to induce them to accept an unfavourable settlement
  • Engaging in dishonesty, breaching client confidentiality, or other unethical behaviors

From what you have observed in a professional capacity, what are the most common forms of such malpractice that you typically encounter?

In my professional capacity as a lawyer, I have seen the following forms of legal malpractice most commonly:

  • Failure to file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations
  • Failure to investigate a case thoroughly before filing suit
  • Failure to advise a client of their legal rights or to communicate with a client
  • Failure to appear in court
  • Failure to respond appropriately to an opponent’s legal filings
  • Missed deadlines

Can you provide some examples of ethical violations by a lawyer that may support a legal malpractice claim?

Lawyers play a crucial role in counseling their clients and advocating for them in court. In doing so, lawyers have ethical duties that they must uphold. The State Bar of California and the American Bar Association have established rules that govern how lawyers perform their duties competently.

Most attorneys follow these rules, but some fail in one way or another due to human error or recklessness. The following are three examples of ethics violations by a lawyer.

  1. Lack of communication

Your lawyer should communicate with you in depth. They should inform you about your case and get your consent for crucial decisions. You should also be informed about how they plan to accomplish your objectives. If you have a reasonable request, the lawyer should comply with it.

It is inappropriate for an attorney to withhold information or fail to provide thorough details about an issue. This makes it hard for you to make informed decisions.

  1. Exaggerating or lying

Of course, new lawyers are always coming into the market. While experience matters in the industry, new advocates are also knowledgeable. However, some may lie or exaggerate their experience to win your business. Even though using false or misleading statements may seem harmless, it can be an ethics violation. You should be given all the information you need that allows you to choose a lawyer with care.

  1. Overbilling

Fee agreements may be on a fixed or contingency basis. Regardless of the payment structure, the attorney fees must not be unreasonably high. Overbilling, changing fees without a discussion, or failing to disclose details about the fee arrangement are ethics violations.

Ethics violations in the legal field are serious and may create a basis for legal malpractice. Understanding these violations helps you to identify them and act suitably.

What are some of the common themes you see underlying legal malpractice cases?

The majority of lawyers are competent at their jobs and will give you adequate representation. However, the reality is that lawyers are not immune from making errors. What causes lawyers to make mistakes? The two main reasons are:

  1. Lack of experience and training

Any lawyer that you hire owes you a duty of care. This means that they must act upon your instructions and in your best interests.

Your case may be complex, but the firm you have approached may simply not have the expertise that you require. The firm wants your business and therefore, may act like they are well-equipped to handle your case. Dishonesty like this may significantly disadvantage you when your case is heard in court.

  1. Being overworked

In any area of law, there is never a shortage of cases. The more cases a firm takes on, the more profitable the firm becomes.

This is all well and good, but it should never be at the expense of good service to a client. An overworked lawyer might make errors in law because they are so rushed. They might even miss crucial deadlines that grind your case to a halt.

In what ways can legal malpractice compromise a client’s case?

Legal malpractice can compromise a client’s case in many ways, including:

  • Losing a case that could have been won
  • Losing the chance to file a case because the statute of limitations has passed
  • Receiving a smaller settlement than what was deserved
  • Having to go through a more drawn-out and expensive legal process

How can an affected client go about proving that damages and wrongs were suffered as a result of their legal counsel’s malpractice?

In order to prove legal malpractice, a client must show that:

  • The lawyer had a duty to the client
  • The lawyer breached that duty
  • The client was harmed as a result of the breach
  • The harm was caused by the lawyer’s negligence

Keep in mind that the client was not harmed by the lawyer’s conduct if the same harm would have occurred to the client anyway, without the lawyer’s conduct. A client has to show that they would have obtained a better result if their lawyer had acted as a reasonably careful attorney.

How does the concept of ‘collectability’ work?

‘Collectability’ refers to the ability to have obtained a ‘collectable’ judgment in the underlying matter. Unless you can show you would have been able to collect on your claim in the underlying case, you will not have a viable malpractice claim.

Here is an example: imagine the underlying claim is a rear-end car crash in which the injured driver was paralysed for life. Then, the lawyer representing the paralysed driver failed to timely file the personal injury claim. What is the value of the legal malpractice case?

Answer: it depends on the insurance and assets the at fault driver had. For example, if the at-fault driver only had the minimum insurance limits ($15,000 per person) and no assets, the value of the case – even with a severe injury – is only $15,000.

Thus, it is extremely important to analyse the collectability issue along with all other significant issues in a legal malpractice case.

Ethics violations in the legal field are serious and may create a basis for legal malpractice.

What would your first piece of advice be for an individual or organisation that feels they have been the victim of legal malpractice?

If you believe you have been the victim of legal malpractice, your first step should be to consult with another lawyer who can help you assess your case and determine if you have a valid claim. If you do have a valid claim, the lawyer can help you file a lawsuit against the negligent lawyer.

A client can help get their case ready for review by gathering all relevant documents, correspondence, and records related to their lawyer’s legal representation. However, should the client not have access to all their files, they may still consult with a legal malpractice specialist. If they decide to move forward with a legal malpractice claim, they can obtain their full legal files through the discovery process.

How does legal malpractice insurance work and how does that impact your analysis of a legal malpractice case?

It is not a secret that physicians generally invest in medical malpractice insurance to safeguard their personal liability if a patient sues them for causing harm. However, few people are aware that lawyers regularly invest in the same kind of malpractice coverage.

Legal malpractice insurance is a financial investment that allows attorneys to cover losses sustained by clients who have been wronged due to allegedly substandard approaches to professional representation.

Individuals and companies invest in professional insurance coverage for two primary reasons. First, they believe that they are at risk of incurring a specific kind of liability. Second, they expect that someone may try to hold them accountable for alleged wrongdoing.

Lawyers, like physicians, understand that because they are human, it is inevitable that they will make mistakes. If a lawyer’s mistake leads to a client’s harm, a lawyer who is covered by malpractice insurance will be less likely to incur personal liability when covering the losses suffered by the wronged party. Essentially, the very fact that most – but not all — lawyers carry malpractice insurance illustrates that malpractice happens and that lawyers expect to be held accountable if they misstep in ways that cause harm.

Generally, without insurance covering the defendant lawyer, the malpractice case is not economically viable. If there is insurance, it is what is known as a ‘burning limits’ policy, where the cost of defence ‘burns down’ the total policy limits. This creates a different dynamic than a typical personal injury case where the insurance company may choose to spend unlimited funds on defending the case without those expenditures impacting the amount of coverage to pay the claim. In a ‘burning limits’ policy, the cost of defense comes out of the policy limit thereby eroding the amount available to settle the claim or satisfy a judgment on behalf of the insured.

Reference : As published in Lawyers Monthly by attorney Steven Glickman on Jun 30, 2023 titled “What Are the Dangers of Legal Malpractice?” Read the original Article at Lawyers Monthly.