In our previous post, we began looking generally at the topic of legal malpractice. Specifically, we are looking at the question of what exactly constitutes legal malpractice. As we noted last time, the key question is whether the attorney failed to abide by an established standard of care in handling a client’s matter. These standards of care are the legal and professional duties an attorney owes to his or her clients.
One of the important duties an attorney owes to clients is not to accept a case without having the competence to handling the matter. By accepting a case, an attorney promises to the client that he or she possesses the degree of knowledge and skill ordinarily possessed and used by other attorneys at the time of representation. This applies to both general practice and specialist attorneys. The latter are held to a heightened standard of care when working in their areas of specialty.
An important point to understand about legal malpractice litigation is that lawyers cannot be held liable simply for a bad outcome in a case. The way a case turns out is a result not only of the skill of the attorney handling the matter, but also the facts and applicable law. A lawyer can only be held accountable for what he or she can control.
In addition, an attorney is not liable for every mistake or error in judgment in a case. In handling a matter, there may be different ways to handle the case, depending on the strategy the attorney believes will work best. An attorney may not be held liable for making a reasonable mistake of judgment. That being said, a lawyer who fails to act in accord with accepted standards of practice can and should be held accountable. The key is whether the attorney exercised his or her discretion within the bounds of what would be considered accepted standards of legal practice.
Those who feel they may have a legal malpractice claim should get in contact with an experienced advocate to have their case evaluated and to determine their options for resolving their case.
Source: New Jersey Courts, Model Civil Jury Charges Automated System, Chapter 1—Genreal Instructions: Legal Malpractice.