Because the laws governing claims against lawyers are complex and evolving, potential plaintiff and defendant lawyers and law firms need to carefully select their counsel.
While former clients are the most common plaintiffs, lawyers and law firms also can be sued by individuals or entities that they never represented. Former clients typically bring claims for legal malpractice (also known as professional negligence), alleging that a lawyer or law firm failed to properly handle a business transaction, lawsuit or some other matter. Depending on the circumstances, the former client may also assert claims for breach of contract or breach of fiduciary duty. Persons who were never clients of a lawyer may be able to bring a professional negligence or breach of fiduciary duty claim against the lawyer if they can show that they were expected to receive the benefit of a lawyer’s services or were otherwise owed a duty by a lawyer. Lawyers also can be sued for allegedly aiding and abetting torts committed by their clients, such as fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, or malicious prosecution.
Lawyers who sue or defend lawyers and law firms need to have the experience and judgment to assess the strengths and weaknesses of these claims and efficiently manage their litigation. Because legal malpractice plaintiffs are obligated to prove that a lawyer’s conduct fell below the standard of care, which is often the subject of expert testimony, lawyers prosecuting and defending legal malpractice claims must understand the applicable law and make effective use of expert testimony. They must also understand, and critically analyze, the plaintiff’s burden of proving that the lawyer’s or firm’s conduct resulted in actual harm, which in many jurisdictions requires a plaintiff to prove “the case within a case.” Some available defenses are unique to legal malpractice cases. Lawyers handling legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty claims should also have a firm grounding in the ethical rules governing lawyers’ conduct, since such claims often arise from alleged violations of those rules and their assertion may implicate a lawyer’s ethical obligations.
Geoffrey M.T. Sturr