Frequently Asked Questions About Legal Malpractice
Q: How do I know if what my lawyer did was legal malpractice?
A: The laws on legal malpractice typically demand that the lawyer’s action (or inaction) was negligent and negatively affected the outcome of your case — for instance, causing you to lose a lawsuit that you otherwise would have won. This can be difficult to prove. Speaking with a different attorney may help you assess whether you have a strong case for legal malpractice.
Q: Why are filing deadlines so important?
A: The deadlines for filing papers with the court are important because there are time limits on when you can bring a lawsuit against someone who has violated your rights. For instance, a state may say that a person who has been injured because of another’s negligence has only two years to file a personal injury lawsuit. After two years, the injured person no longer has that option. If you bring your case to a lawyer in a timely fashion but the lawyer fails to file the papers in time, you could lose your chance to take legal action.
Q: When I look for a lawyer, what are the qualities I should seek?
A: It is hard to say exactly what qualities a lawyer should have because every lawyer (and every client) is different, but, in general, a lawyer should listen to your story and discuss your options with you. A lawyer also should explain how the fee structure works and ensure that you understand it. Be sure to ask questions about the strength of your case and the estimated cost for the lawyer to handle it. To many clients, the most important quality is the lawyer’s communication skills: returning phone calls promptly and answering questions in simple, clear terms are vital to the lawyer-client relationship.
Q: What should I do if I think my lawyer has done a bad job?
A: Speaking with the lawyer is a first step. Find out why the lawyer chose to take the specific actions. There may be a reasonable explanation. If you are not satisfied, you can take up the matter with your state bar’s discipline committee, and you can consult an attorney who is experienced in legal malpractice cases.
Q: What if my lawyer settled my case without consulting me first?
A: If you gave the lawyer authority to settle the case within a specified dollar range and the lawyer later did so, then the lawyer was probably just following your direction. If the lawyer settled the case without your permission, however, this goes against the rules for attorney ethics. If you can show that you would have been more successful had the lawyer not accepted that settlement offer, you may have a case for legal malpractice.
Q: At first, my lawyer said my case was worth a lot of money. Now, it doesn’t look like it will be worth much at all. Can I sue the lawyer for the difference?
A: No. Although your lawyer may have misjudged the amount of money you could win or settle for in your case, the lawyer is not liable for the difference. New evidence, witness testimony and other factors can weaken a case as time goes on. On the other hand, the lawyer may have given you the wrong idea about the value of your case so that you would hire the lawyer. If you wish, you may consult another lawyer for a second opinion on the value of the case.
Q: I’m thinking of hiring a lawyer to work on my case, but I am worried about the cost. What should I ask about fees?
A: Attorneys fees can be charged in a few different ways. It depends on the type of case and the preferences of both the attorney and the client. Some attorneys charge by the hour. Others charge per case when the matter is fairly straightforward. Others charge a contingency fee, which means that they will take a percentage of whatever the client wins as payment for legal services rendered. Keep in mind that court costs and other fees may also be charged. You should find out how soon you will be expected to pay the bill, about how much the attorney expects the process to cost and whether you can pay the fee in installments. Get everything in writing and make sure that you understand it. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
Q: My lawyer won’t return my phone calls, and I don’t know if the lawyer is even working on my case anymore. What can I do?
A: Act quickly to find out what is happening. If the lawyer won’t return your calls, send the lawyer a fax or a letter asking for an explanation of what is happening with your case. Although lawyers are busy people, they owe their clients proper communication. If you do not receive a response (or if the response is unsatisfactory), you may wish to consult another attorney. You are allowed to request that your original lawyer send you your file, whether or not you have outstanding bills.