Is it Time for Another Lawyer? How to Avoid Being the Victim of Legal Malpractice

Imagine that you or your business runs into a legal problem.  You don’t think you understand enough about the issue to tackle it on your own, so you make the prudent decision to enlist someone who does: you call an attorney.  You willingly give this attorney your time, your money, and your sensitive personal and financial information, because you rightfully trust that he or she is a qualified professional who will treat you and your case with competence and care.  But soon, things start to go wrong.  Return calls are few and far between, until your calls stop being returned altogether.  Documents are lost. Deadlines are missed.  You take a huge financial loss, and struggle to patch up the pieces left behind.  Was it legal malpractice?

two young colleagues arguing over paperwork in office

Which Lawyers Are Most Likely to Commit Malpractice?

Bankruptcy lawyers handle enormous quantities of money.  Personal injury lawyers are responsible for righting terrible injustices to their clients.  Criminal defense lawyers may literally be fighting for their clients’ lives.  But no matter what sort of issues an attorney or law firm handles, all lawyers are entrusted with precious responsibilities.

Because the stakes are so high and the risks so great, attorneys are put through years of extremely rigorous education, examination, and training.  In order to practice, they must pass the notoriously difficult bar exam.  This degree of academic intensity filters out most incompetent, unethical, and lax practitioners — but sometimes, substandard lawyers do slip through the cracks, undetected by innocent clients until it’s too late.

Statistically speaking, certain areas of law have a greater tendency towards malpractice than others.  According to a 2011 survey conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA), the top five types of lawyers who receive the most malpractice claims are those who practice:

5.  Bankruptcy and Debt Collection: 9.2% of claims
4.  Estates, Trust, and Probate: 10.7% of claims
3.  Family Law: 12.1% of claims
2.  Personal Injury (Plaintiffs): 15.6% of claims
1.  Real Estate: 20.3% of claims

Real estate attorneys are the most likely to commit (or at least be accused of) lawyer malpractice — a survey first, with personal injury taking the lead position during previous years. The survey partially attributes this figure to the decline of the real estate market during 2007 onward.  With this data in mind, you should be particularly wary of who you choose to work with if you are involved in a real estate dispute or personal injury claim.

Close up of hands giving house model to other hands with money.

What Are the Most Common Mistakes Attorneys Make?

The 2011 survey also files all alleged errors into one of four categories by claim percentage. These categories were:

4.  Intentional Wrongs: 10.2% of claims
3.  Client Relations: 14.6% of claims
2.  Administrative Errors: 30.1% of claims
1.  Substantive Errors (Insufficient/Dated Knowledge):  45.1% of claims

It’s interesting, if somewhat alarming, to note that lawyers deliberately hurt their clients’ cases in more than 10% of all claims.  Many mistakes are accidental, if not entirely forgivable — but many of them are intentional.  Be extremely wary of any attorney who does not treat you with dignity, respect, and professionalism 100% of the time.  Always be vigilant.  If your lawyer snaps at you for asking questions, has emotional outbursts, or if you simply have a bad gut feeling, consider retaining someone else.  You absolutely do not and should not have to work with a person who makes you in any way uncomfortable. Remember: most legal procedures aren’t known for their speedy resolutions.  You could be working with this individual for years.

Breaking down claim types further still, a 2010 issue of Law Practice Magazine cites studies conducted by the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability from 2000 to 2007 to rank the top five most common causes of malpractice allegations.  These surveys used a data source of over 42,000 claims.  The top five mistakes lawyers made were:

5.  Failure to Calendar Properly:  6.7% of claims
4.  Failure to File Documents (No Deadline): 8.6% of claims
3.  Inadequate Discovery or Investigation: 8.8% of claims
2.  Planning Mistakes: 8.9% of claims
1.  Failure to Know and Apply Law: 11.3% of claims

At the opposite end of the spectrum, legal errors least likely to result in malpractice claims included losing files or documents (0.5%), making mathematical errors (0.8%), and unforeseen tax consequences (1.6%).

Business man and woman talking in the office - other people in t

Choosing a Lawyer: Warning Signs to Look Out For

Needless to say, it is always a good idea to thoroughly research the credentials and professional history of any attorney you hire.  It may seem like a tedious chore now, but you’ll thank yourself for taking the time to do your homework later.  This will help reduce your risk of inadvertently selecting an attorney who frequently garners poor reviews, or who has a history of disciplinary actions.

When you’re selecting an attorney, what are some warning signs to watch out for?  Be wary if you notice any of these red flags for potential malpractice down the line:

  • They won’t give you references.  When you do good work, you’re left with grateful clients and peers who respect your name.  If your lawyer can’t or won’t supply peer review or client testimony, something is wrong.
  • Their communication is weak.  If you’ve hired an attorney, you’re probably coming from a stressful situation.  You deserve transparent, frequent communication regarding the progression of your case.
  • Their fees are outrageous.  Compare a handful of lawyers who handle the same issue in the same geographic area.  If one charges five times more than the others, they may be gouging their clients.
  • They don’t have the right experience.  You would never trust a brain surgeon to perform a heart operation, no matter how smart or skilled they were in their own field. You need a lawyer who has a good track record with your problem.

If you’ve been hurt by attorney negligence, you may be entitled to compensation.  The New Jersey malpractice attorneys of Maselli Warren have more than 25 years of experience to dedicate to your case.  To schedule your free and completely confidential legal consultation, call our law offices at (800) 891-2657, or contact us online today.