Attorney Malpractice

If you believe an attorney representing you has failed to provide you with adequate representation, you may have the basis for a legal malpractice claim against the attorney.

Each case is unique, but there are circumstances that frequently appear in matters involving legal malpractice:

  • Fee Agreements and Billing
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Failure to Communicate
  • Statute of Limitations

Fee Agreements and Billing
Texas law requires that if an attorney agrees to handle a case in return for a portion of the recovery ("contingency fee" case), there must be a written fee agreement signed by the attorney and the client. It is the attorney's responsibility to prepare a valid fee agreement. If you have a dispute over fees owed to your attorney, and you have no written fee agreement, you may wish to speak to a malpractice attorney concerning your matter.

Conflict of Interest
An attorney has a fiduciary duty to avoid conflicting interests - a conflict of interest arises whenever an attorney's independent judgment on behalf of a client may be affected by a loyalty to another party. There is a potential conflict of interest when:

  • An attorney represents multiple claimants in an aggregate settlement (common when a disaster injures many individuals, all of whom hire the same attorney);
  • An attorney represents both sides in a matter where potentially the parties' interests may conflict (i.e. representing both buyer and seller or both parties in a divorce);
  • An attorney belongs to a large firm, the likelihood of a connection with potential defendants, or their respective insurance companies, is greater;
  • An attorney cannot clearly identify who is the client;

This final scenario is common in legal malpractice suits arising from estate work and from the creation/representation of new business entities. Examples are: If an attorney drafts a trust for a client, then the personal representative robs the trust following the death of the client, do the named beneficiaries of the trust have a claim against the attorney? Or, an individual approaches his attorney and requests legal services involving the start-up of a corporation with several partners. After incorporating, is the individual, the group of individuals or the corporation the client? The attorney should always be able to clearly identify the client - and should discuss this with all involved parties so there is no confusion over whose interests the attorney is serving.
Additionally, an attorney may have personal interests which conflict with those of the client, such as when the attorney needs money and is willing to settle a case cheap for immediate payment of a contingent fee.

Failure to Communicate
Your claims should never be compromised without your full knowledge or consent - thus a demand for settlement should never be made on your behalf without your full authority. The better practice is for the attorney to prepare an advice letter, providing a professional opinion as to the value of your claims. The advice should also recommend a settlement range and asking your permission for making a specific opening demand.

Likewise, a settlement cannot be accepted on your behalf without your approval. You have the final say. Conversely, your attorney is obligated to inform you of any settlement offers, even if the offer is lower than what you indicated you would accept.

You also have the right to be fully informed of the status of your case. Ask questions and insist on answers which you understand - your lawyer has a duty to provide clear explanations that enable you to make informed decisions regarding your case.

Good lawyers communicate often and well with their clients, particularly personal injury clients. If months go by without word on your case, investigate what is happening. Litigation is a slow process, but an aggressive attorney usually can progress a case quickly enough to at least justify monthly updates.

Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is a deadline established by statute by which time you must file your lawsuit or be forever barred. For most personal injury matters, this period is two years. Thus, you have two years from the date of your injury, or, more precisely, when you knew or should have known that you had suffered an injury, in which to file your claims. In Texas, injury cases and most other “torts,” have a two-year statute of limitations. Breaches of agreement and fraud cases have a four-year period.

Calculation of your deadline is usually straightforward, ask your attorney when your statute of limitations period expires and mark it on your calendar. Surprisingly, for something that is so elementary, around 15% of all legal malpractice cases result from failure on the part of the attorney to file suit timely.

Legal malpractice cases may also involve neglect of the file by the attorney, failure by the attorney to abide by court orders and discovery requirements, failure to conduct adequate discovery, or improper conduct such as sexual advances by the attorney. If your attorney drastically reduces the valuation of your case without a clear reason, there may be cause for being suspicious of the attorney's motives. Many cases where the attorney has "overlooked" a critical detail are settled quickly before the client is allowed to learn of the attorney's negligence. If you feel you may have a legal malpractice claim against your present attorney, you may wish to pursue a claim even before the underlying litigation, the case the negligent attorney is or was handling, is concluded.

If you have questions about your attorney's conduct, and you wish to discuss your matter with an experienced malpractice attorney, please call 713 942-9898, email Dana LeJune & Associates or fill-out our Free Case Review form.

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