How do Attorney Malpractice Claims begin?
Clients do not like to be ignored by their attorneys. When a client calls, e-mails, texts or mails a letter, they expect a prompt response. Given how connected the world is today with being able to texted or e-mail at any time or day, even one or two days without a response from their lawyer can feel like an eternity to an anxious client.
When a client expects one result, but gets another result, it’s not uncommon for a client to sue or allege attorney malpractice. What can you do to help protect your law firm from legal malpractice claims? When explaining the services that you will provide to the client, never leave what legal services will be provided open to interpretation.
Many times failing to communicate is just one of many sins relating to misconduct (malpractice) by an attorney. It can set up mistrust between the client and the attorney to the point that the attorney starts to cover up problems with client matters. When this happens, the attorney when confronted may try to lie to cover up misdeeds or problems.
Once the cover up starts, it can change from a simple mistake that might be able to be corrected or mitigated, to an attorney malpractice claim or worse yet if the attorney is trying to cover up the problem an admonishment or suspension. Lack of client communication is one of the easiest ways to get a bar complaint.
Rules to follow:
1. Responsiveness to Client: Responding to client requests for information must be a top priority. Even if you are unable to respond with new information to a client email or request for information, attorneys should make it a habit of acknowledging that they received their client’s message and will reply as soon as possible. Most clients appreciate prompt attention knowing that you are not ignoring them.
2. Do it in a timely manner: If you do state that you will get back to you shortly then the attorney must respond in a timely manner. Docketing a deadline to respond to the client’s email or message. This will limit the possibility of inadvertently forgetting about the client’s message and not responding at all. Remember, while you likely have many other clients and cases, many clients believe their matter is your only matter. A timely response to the client gives them a sense that they are important to you.
3. Keep an open line of communication: Even if a client is bad at staying in touch, it’s important that you continue to communicate. For long running cases, make sure that you continue to communicate in the manner that the client prefers. I you need answers to questions, and do not receive a response to an e-mail, don’t assume that the client is ignoring you, (s)he may never have gotten the e-mail. Not the 1st time communication gets caught in a spam filter. If that client does not respond to the e-mail. Pick up the phone. Continuous communication helps prevent things from getting heated. By all means make sure that you thoroughly document all client communications.
4. Have an effective client engagement/disengagement letter process: The client engagement letter needs to state precisely what services you will and will not provide, along with expected deadlines and costs. Discuss the engagement letter legal services with the client so they understand before signing. When your legal services come to a close, make sure to send out a disengagement letter closing the attorney/client relationship. (Your local bar is a good source for boiler plate engagement/disengagement letters.)
5. Don’t hide undesirable information: If you screw up, remember mistakes happen and things go wrong. It’s part of life. But instead of trying to hide a missed deadline or bad result from a client, it’s better to explain the problem once it’s noticed. (Also likely required by rules for professional conduct.) If possible make a plan to address this issue to keep damage to a minimum.
6. Get lawyers professional liability insurance: Even the best attorneys can run into problems and errors do happen. Sometimes even with the best communication skills and even the best possible result for your client, you will get sued for attorney malpractice. It’s highly recommended that you protect your law practice and your personal assets with attorney malpractice insurance.