Hilton L. Stein, a gregarious fellow, seems an unlikely
candidate to be an outcast, but he revels in the role. "I'm never
invited to any golf outings, I can tell you," he said, laughing.
Edward Freidberg is no less a pariah, excluded from the
lunches and dinners at which contacts are made and deals done.
But then, he said, "I'm not a very social creature."
Stein and Freidberg are lawyers who make a living suing
lawyers, and a good living it can be these days, with legal
malpractice cases more prevalent than ever and few lawyers vying
to take them. But among their colleagues in the legal profession,
these practitioners are not popular.
"I think I have their healthy respect," said Freidberg, who
heads the five-member Freidberg Law Corp. in Sacramento, Calif.
"But no, they don't like me."
Stein, who works with two associates in Montville, N.J., is
"This practice is hell," he said. "The lawyers we sue all take
it very personally; they're angry and nasty. Other lawyers think
we're scum; even judges look on us disfavorably."
No one seems to know for certain how many legal malpractice
suits there are nationally, but there is agreement in the
profession that they are on the rise. Ronald E. Mallen, a partner
in Long Levit of San Francisco and co-author of the book "Legal
Malpractice," said he had to read some 600 cases before writing
the first edition, which was published in 1977.
"Now I read 600 or 700 cases a year, just to keep up," he
The surest sign of the increase may lie in malpractice
insurance bills. "In 1970, lawyers were paying less for
malpractice insurance than for car insurance, and a lot of
insurers were just throwing it in for free," on other policies,
Mallen said. Today, premiums of $10,000 to $15,000 a year for one
lawyer are common.
Explaining the growth in malpractice suits exposes a vast gulf
between lawyers for the plaintiffs in such cases and lawyers for
Mallen, who usually works for malpractice defendants, points
to a lawsuit-happy segment of the population, the same people who
he says have fueled a general boom in litigation.
"They're looking for the afterlife through lawsuits," he said.
"They're the sort of people who think they should be cared for
for life on a minor workmen's comp case."
Even plaintiffs' lawyers acknowledge that most people who come
to them with hopes of filing legal malpractice suits have claims
that either are groundless or cannot be won.
Donald B. Hilliker, a partner at Pope, Cahill Devine in
Chicago who specializes in defending against legal malpractice
claims, said growth in the field reflected the passing of a time
when a person's lawyer was likely to be a friend _ an
out-of-court relationship that tended to deter malpractice
This "commercialization of lawyer-client relationships,"
Hilliker said, has run about 15 years behind the same change in
doctors' relations with their patients, just as the growth of
legal malpractice claims has lagged behind the explosion of
medical malpractice suits.
From the plaintiffs' bar, however, comes a simpler
"There are idiots out there practicing law," Freidberg said.
"I would say one in four trial lawyers is incompetent or
routinely negligent." And clients, he said, have gotten wise.
One of his cases began when a lawyer let the five-year time
limit for filing his client's medical malpractice suit lapse.
Long after an appellate court had refused to extend the filing
period, the lawyer continued to tell his client that the appeal
was alive. The client discovered the deception, went to Freidberg
and won a $350,000 settlement from his former lawyer's insurance
Stein said his experience working for an insurance company in
the mid-1980s, defending lawyers against malpractice claims led
him to switch sides. …