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In Sherman v. Ellis, K18CC-006-009, the Superior Court of Delaware considered a legal malpractice action filed by a former client against the attorney who had drafted his prenuptial agreement. The case is unusual because the divorce court ruled in Sherman’s favor and held that the prenuptial agreement was valid and binding. Despite having won the underlying litigation, Sherman sued his lawyer and alleged that the lawyer should have included an additional provision in the prenuptial agreement. Had the lawyer included this provision, according to Sherman, his ex-wife would not have challenged the prenuptial agreement in the divorce case and he would have not had to incur legal fees defending the prenup.

Comment: once you read those facts, you should realize that this was a very unsympathetic case for the plaintiff. He received good legal work from his lawyer and won his case and he still sued.

The Delaware court in a well-considered published opinion dismissed the legal malpractice case beause there was no evidence that the ex-wife would have agreed to the so-called Silver Bullet provision.

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In Herren v. Armenta, 1-CA-CV-18-0381, the plaintiff sued her former lawyers alleging that they committed legal malpractice when the represented her in another case (the underlying case). In the underlying case, Tonto Supply, Inc., sued Herren for breach of contract and other torts. Herren alleged that her lawyers were negligent because they failed to timely respond to requests to admit and to several motions for summary judgment, resulting in a judgment against her.

This case presented a common problem with legal malpractice actions – would Herren have won the underlying case if the lawyers had responded in timely fashion?

In the malpractice case, Herren had the burden to prove that the lawyer’s negligence was the cause of her loss.  She was unable to meet that standard, despite the fact that she hired an expert. The court explains its decision to affirm the dismissal of the malpractice case:

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Sammet v. Helline is an unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky. The case number is 2018-CA-1033. The story is familiar: a divorce lawyer sued for unpaid legal fees and received a legal malpractice counterclaim in return.

Here, the lawyer prevailed as the former client was unable to introduce any evidence of economic damages. Summary judgment for the lawyer was affirmed. The explanation:

We further note that Denise’s deposition and additional answers and responses to written discovery requests are largely irrelevant to Beth’s counterclaims, even though she claims denial of access to these precludes a grant of summary judgment. The standard to prove legal malpractice is well-settled.

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Zander v. Carlson and the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, 2019 IL App (1st) 181868, is a legal malpractice opinion which holds that a union member who retains a union appointed attorney to represent him in challenging an employment action, cannot file a malpractice claim because filing such a claim would circumvent the collective bargaining agreement.

The facts and procedural history are set forth as follows:

¶ 4 Under the Illinois Municipal Code, a police officer facing discharge is entitled to a hearing before the local Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (police board), unless a collective bargaining agreement between the municipality and the officer’s union provides for arbitration of such disputes. See 65 ILCS 5/10-2.1-17 (West 2018). The collective bargaining agreement between the Village and the FOP provides that an officer may elect to challenge his discharge either before the police board or through the agreement’s ordinary grievance-arbitration procedure. On Carlson’s advice, Zander elected to proceed via arbitration. After a two-day hearing, the arbitrator upheld the decision to terminate Zander’s employment.

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The case, Nancy Setterquist v. Law Offices of Ted D. Billbe, P.C., N0. 18-35880, is an unpublished decision of the Ninth Circuit that raises important issues. The case is a divorce malpractice case. Setterquist alleged that her lawyer allowed the court to enter an erroneous order. Based on the text of that order, her ex-husband filed a post-decree claim against her for maintenance and was able to recover. The facts are not summarized well in the opinion, unfortunately, leaving me with questions about what happened and why it happened.

The defense strategy was to move to dismiss on the basis that Setterquist engaged a new lawyer post-decree. The defense argued in a motion to dismiss that successor counsel could have corrected the error made by Billbe and defeated ex-husband’s claims.

The district court dismissed the case on the basis that Setterquist could not allege proximate causation because she employed successor counsel.

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Over the years, I have thought about this a bit. My current answer to this question is to be mindful of your own emotions when dealing with clients.

If a client criticizes you unfairly or makes you angry, stop writing that letter or email and let things cool off. You have may have to write to the client to correct the record, but do not do so when you are angry. Angry lawyers do dumb things like (a) disclose a client confidence to a third party; (b) threaten to file an ARDC grievance against another lawyer; or (c) file an angry motion with a judge.

When you are angry, you are not thinking correctly. Take time and cool off. Discuss the matter with a colleague or an experienced ethics lawyer. Then it may be necessary to write back to the client and inform that person or corporation of your opinion. Managing your own emotions is the most difficult challenge you will face in dealing with an unhappy client. Remember that the client may be dissatisfied with the result of the matter and that he has emotions as well.

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Illinois does not require a lawyer to have insurance. However, the ARDC requests that you inform it each year whether or not you have insurance.

My advice to the public is that you should never hire a lawyer who is uninsured. First, if something goes wrong, you have little chance of any recovery. Second, the insurance process forces lawyers to look at their own conduct and consider whether certain practices are appropriate. Third, most policies have coverage for any grievance that someone may file with the bar association or attorney regulator. Having insurance gives you access to free CLE and you can usually call your insurer and ask questions about some practices. (Not every policy has all of these benefits, but your policy might have them.)

Most important of all, having insurance will discourage you from filing a lawsuit for legal fees against a former client.

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There are a number of issues that you should consider before you file a legal malpractice claim against a lawyer. Your lawyer should discuss these issues with you so that you understand how to proceed:

  1. Did the lawyer cause your harm or was it caused by someone or something else? You are required to prove that the lawyer was the proximate cause of the loss of your case. Consider whether you would have won the case absent whatever error you believe the lawyer made. Play Devil’s Advocate – even if the lawyer had done what he was supposed to do, would I have won the case? Often the answer to this question is “No” because the case could not be won under any circumstances.
  2. Am I prepared to waive the attorney-client privilege? When you sue your lawyer you are almost always deemed to have waived the attorney-client privilege. That privilege shields communications from you to the lawyer and from the lawyer to you. It allow you to seek legal advice without fear that your own words will come back to haunt you. But if you sue a lawyer, you waive the privilege. Consider carefully whether the waiver of the privilege is worth it to you.
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In Flusser v. Bikel, 2019 NY Slip Op 32847(U), the plaintiff was involved in a contentious divorce. She discharged one firm and then hired the Defendant law firm (Bikel v. Mandarano) to represent her. At the conclusion of the divorce case, Plaintiff filed a legal malpractice claim against the Defendant law firm. In her complaint Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants had failed to sue prior counsel for alleged malpractice by those lawyers during the divorce case.

The Defendants responded that they had entered into an engagement agreement with Plaintiff under which Defendants representation would be limited to two areas:  “(i) “the prosecution or defense of a divorce action;” and (ii) “the prosecution or defense of a Family Court proceeding concerning custody, visitation and support proceedings, including the attempt to negotiate a resolution of the matter.'”

The trial court dismissed the legal malpractice action on the ground that the Defendants were not retained to investigate or prosecute a legal malpractice claim: The reasoning:

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Two law professors, Robert Anderson IV and Derek Muller, have published “The High Cost of Lowering the Bar,” in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics. It can be found in Volume 32, page 307 of that law review.

Anderson and Muller argue, based on statistical evidence that lowering the bar passage score will mean an increase in attorney disciplinary claims. They show that students with lower bar passage scores are more likely to have public disciplinary matters. They argue that the attorney’s score on the bar exam correlates with discipline rates throughout the lawyer’s career. Lawyers with higher scores are far less likely to be disciplined. Lawyers with low scores are more likely to be disciplined.

Anderson and Muller argue against lowering the bar exam score because lower scores mean weaker quality lawyers.