When you see a physician for treatment, you’re going into that relationship with a lot of trust. You trust that the physician has the expertise you need or will refer you to a specialist who does. Above all, you must trust that your physician knows and meets the standard of care established by the medical profession. If a physician fails to meet the standard of care, and his or her patient is harmed as a result, it could constitute medical malpractice.
The same dynamic exists between attorneys and their clients who’ve been harmed by legal malpractice. Luckily, our legal system provides a recourse for both types of harm.
It’s called legal malpractice
When you hire an attorney, you come into the relationship with two things: a legal issue that needs resolved and a great deal of trust in the attorney you are hiring.
How “good” is the attorney you’ve hired? You may have referrals from friends or business associates, people you believe you can trust. When taking referrals, consider how many attorneys the referrer has worked with to form a reasonable benchmark for comparison. You might ask how many attorneys they have seen in action?
In fact, there is no quantifiable way of measuring how “good” an attorney is or how one attorney stands competitively against others, the way you could say that one runner is faster than others in a race.
Much like you can’t measure prosecuting attorneys by convictions versus acquittals, you can’t rate civil litigation attorneys by their “batting average” in winning cases. All cases are different and nearly every case is subject to unpredictable twists and turns that make the idea of certainty very subjective.
So how is a client to know, when a case turns sour, whether the problem was legal malpractice? The idea of “standard of care” applies here, just as a similar standard applies to physicians.
What is legal malpractice?
Whether in civil or criminal litigation, legal malpractice occurs when a lawyer’s performance falls below the standard of care. “Standard of care” defines an attorney’s legal and ethical boundaries. It’s a “rule book” of sorts that defines what attorneys can and can’t do to advocate for their clients and what they are expected to do to protect the trust their clients have invested in them—and in the justice system.
The legal standard of care is a standard for competency, not for quality. An attorney can be competent according to the standard of care—doing everything he or she is supposed to do for a client—and still not be as knowledgeable, thorough, and creative as an opposing attorney.
That’s not legal malpractice. There’s no law against not being as good as the other guy and losing a case does not mean that legal malpractice was the cause (in fact, it rarely is).
But there may well be a case of legal malpractice when an attorney:
- Misses deadlines in filing critical documents through ignorance, procrastination, or laziness
- Damages a client’s case due to fraud or conflict of interest
- Carelessly loses essential documents
- Withdraws from a client’s case improperly (such as doing so without informing the client or the court)
- Fails to know or to apply the law
These are just some of the triggers. Frankly, many law firms won’t touch this kind of case, but we believe we have a duty to help clients who have been injured by legal malpractice.
Serving justice by serving those wronged through legal malpractice
We’ve talked before about how to choose a civil litigation attorney. Doing that kind of basic research, either online or through the court system, can tell you a lot about an attorney. Face-to-face interviews—where you can learn what kinds of cases they have handled, how many, and what has made them successful—will go a long way to inform you about how they think, how they work, and how comfortable you will feel in extending your trust to them.
And though the process of vetting an attorney is well worth the effort when you consider what’s at stake, there is still no guarantee against legal malpractice.
When a client is injured by an attorney’s negligence, we feel strongly about taking on that case for the sake of the injured party. In a civil litigation case, justice may take the form of helping people get the compensation they need to rebuild their lives. In a criminal case, it may look more like making amends for months or years of a person’s life that’s been lost behind prison walls due to malicious prosecution or a neglectful defense.
If attorneys fail to perform to the minimum standard of care, don’t their clients still deserve justice? We think so. And we believe that others in our profession should be willing to step up and protect the integrity of the legal system we all depend on as well.
If you have been injured through legal or medical malpractice that calls for civil litigation, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We’re here to help.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.