How to Protect Yourself from Legal Malpractice

Article excerpt

Most lawyers are good, hard-working people who competently, scrupulously, and consistently protect their clients' interests. A very small minority, however, are incompetent, and a minute fraction are truly unscrupulous. Here are some tips to increase your odds of being represented well.

Ask around, and go with a known quantity. Whatever the legal issue, chances are you know someone who has hired an attorney for the same reason. Ask people who've been there before who their attorney was, whether they were satisfied with the representation, and how much it cost. While you're on the subject, ask how well and promptly the attorney explained the issues and handled the case.

Attorneys themselves are often a good source of information about whom you should retain, so don't hesitate to ask one you've consulted on other issues before. If you have to approach an attorney who hasn't been recommended to you, ask for the names and phone numbers of clients who were represented in similar cases, and call those people.

Watch out for dabblers. Would you ask a podiatrist about a cardiac problem? Don't do the equivalent with lawyers. Indeed, most legal malpractice cases I see involve attorneys who made mistakes while trying their hands at matters outside their normal areas of practice. I once handled a case against a skilled personal-injury trial attorney who unwisely took on a complex commercial arbitration. He capped a series of mistakes by agreeing to a stipulation that allowed the arbitrators to award punitive damages against his client. The result was a judgment for $1.8 million in punitive damages, in a situation where the client's maximum exposure should have been $150,000.

The practice of law grows more specialized every year. An attorney can master a legal area only by practicing within it most of the time. Even if you have great results with an attorney on a particular issue, that person may be clueless in another area of practice. Exceptions exist, of course. But in general, if you don't hire a specialist, you're taking a risk.

Ask tough questions and demand clear, substantive answers. A good attorney will take the time to make sure you understand exactly what's being done for you. If you have any questions about the lawyer's strategy or how it should be working, make sure you get them answered thoroughly.

Pat phrases like "Don't worry, I'll handle it," or "That's just the way things work" are red flags. For example, when John Hagan (author of the accompanying article) asked his second attorney why the IRS was sending delinquency notices, the lawyer gave the flip answer that the IRS was being incompetent. …