Failure to act properly on behalf of a client may subject an attorney to a private civil suit for malpractice as well as to discipline for violation of the Code or Rules. The actions are different both as to matters of proof and as to the ultimate sanctions imposed. See generally Mallen and Smith, Legal Malpractice (3d edit. 1990) § 1.8, 1.9.

A. Discipline

Model Rule 1.1 requires that an attorney provide competent representation to a client, and indicates that such representation "requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation." Rule 1.1 is stated as more of an affirmative requirement than its predecessor in the Code, D.R. 6-101 (A). Like 6-101, however, Rule 1.1 is rarely used by itself to discipline an attorney. It is more frequently used in conjunction with Rule 1.3 (diligence) and 1.4 (communication), and generally where there has been a pattern of incompetence and neglect, see, e.g., In re Frank, 885 S.W.2d 328 (Mo. banc 1994); or in conjunction with other violations, see, e.g., In re Griffey, 873 S.W.2d 600 (Mo. banc 1994); In re Stricker, 808 S.W.2d 356 (Mo. banc 1991); In re Barr, 796 S.W.2d 617 (Mo. banc 1990). For a discussion of whether one incident is enough, and of the types of cases leading to sanction, see generally Annotated Rules, at 2-10, 28-31.

As indicated, neglect, or lack of diligence, is the more common basis for discipline and sanctions are usually imposed for a pattern of neglect. Despite possible indications to the contrary, there is no doubt that "neglect of duty to clients is sufficient for disciplinary action." In re Alpers, 574 S.W.2d 427, 428 (Mo. banc 1978). According to most courts, it is not necessary that such neglect be accompanied by moral turpitude or dishonesty. Alpers, supra. The concurring opinion of Judge Holman in In re Holm, 285 Or. 189, 590 P.2d 233 (1979) is indicative of the thinking of many courts and judges in this area:

In the past this Court has made an understandable distinction in the way offending members of the bar have been treated between those guilty of dishonesty and those guilty of procrastination and inattention to their clients' affairs. It has been reluctant to inflict severe sanctions for other than dishonesty. Because of the number of cases presently coming to this Court which concern legitimate complaints of procrastination and inattention, I have come to the conclusion that protection of the public requires that more severe sanctions be imposed for such offenses. Unfortunately, the effect on the client may be just as disastrous as if dishonesty were involved.

Id. at 235.

The concern of courts regarding neglect is well stated in Office of Disciplinarv Council v. Kagawa, 622 P.2d 115, 118 (Hawaii 1981):

Procrastination and delay in handling of legal affairs not only induces a client to lose confidence in his attorney, but reflects badly on the profession and the courts, and may foster an impression in the public mind that the highly-vaunted standards of professional ethics are no more than a sham.

Quoting from In re Trask, 53 Hawaii 165, 172, 488 P.2d 1167, 1171 (1971). See also In re Hardge, 713 S.W.2d 503,506 (Mo. 1986) where, in imposing a public reprimand for violation of DR 6-101 (A)(1)(3) and 7-101 (A), the court stated:

Having considered the entire record as presented we conclude that reprimand is adequate and proper. The failure of respondent to timely pursue her client's legal interests represents conduct that is simply unacceptable. The consequences of such conduct harms both the public and the legal community. Our action here is meant to protect the public and the profession by making it clear to both that the Court expects lawyers to be diligent and competent in all aspects of handling their clients' business.

Neither the fact that there has been no actual monetary loss to the client, nor that the attorney has been ill or is youthful or inexperienced, nor the demands of other legal work, will excuse or act as a defense to a charge under D.R. 6-101(A) or M.R. 1.1 and 1.3, although such factors may be considered in mitigation of the severity of discipline. See Annotated Rules, at 31-32.

In addition to imposing discipline, several courts have required that the attorney return his or her fee where there has been a finding of neglect. In Matter of Jaynes, 267 N.W.2d 782 (1978), the North Dakota court issued a public reprimand to an attorney who had neglected the probate of an estate, but also required the return of the entire fee. The court in Florida Bar v. Fuller, 389 S. 2d 999 (Fla. 1980) suspended the attorney for one month for failing to effectively communicate with his client and for not proceeding with the action as agreed, and conditioned readmission on return of the fee to the client. In addition to suspending an attorney who exhibited "inexcusable delay and procrastination in pursuing matters entrusted to his care," the Washington Supreme Court required an attorney who failed to close out an estate to hire another attorney to do so at his own expense and to pay interest charges which accrued on taxes for the estate which he had failed to pay. In re Loomos, 90 Wash. 2d 98, 579 P.2d 350 (en banc 1978). Thus, in addition to jeopardizing one's license to practice, neglect can be costly as well.

Discipline is also possible for failure to adequately communicate even absent incompetence or neglect. See In re Harris, 890 S.W.2d 299 (Mo. banc 1994). The court there recognized that "it is irritating to clients and damaging to the public perception of the legal profession when clients are not given timely and adequate information regarding the status of their case. In re Kopf, 767 S.W.2d 20, 24 (Mo. banc 1989) (Blackmar, J., concurring)." 890 S.W.2d at 302.

B. Malpractice

Although there are disputes as to exactly what constitutes malpractice, there is general agreement that it includes a "broad spectrum of acts and omissions which can result in the liability of an attorney for non-fraudulent wrongs committed as a professional," including breach of standard of care, fiduciary obligation, or implied contractual commitments. Mallen and Levit, Legal Malpractice (1977); see generally Mallen and Smith, § 1.1.

Attorney malpractice claims have increased dramatically in the recent past. There were more reported legal malpractice decisions in the ten years ending 1977 than in the 100 preceding years. Zilly, Recent Developments in Legal Malpractice Litigation, 6 Litigation 8. In 1977, seven percent or more of all attorneys faced malpractice claims Id. A survey in Missouri indicated that 9.5% of attorneys responding gave an affirmative answer to the question "Has anyone in your firm ever been sued or a settlement arranged . . . because of alleged legal malpractice during the past ten years?" Rottman and Stern, The Risk of Attorney Professional Liability, 28 J. Mo. Bar 127, 133 (1972). The numbers since the 70's continue to increase. Information about reported malpractice decisions shows a dramatic increase since 1959, well beyond the increase in the number of lawyers over that time. See Smith and Mallen, Preventing Legal Malpractice (2d edit. 1996), at 18-25. Although the incidence of malpractice is hard to track, since there is not complete reporting by insurance carriers (and fewer than two thirds of lawyers carry malpractice insurance in any event), it is estimated that 10-20% of lawyers will have claims made against them in any given year, and that a new lawyer entering practice will have three claims filed against him or her over the course of a lifetime of practice. See Manuel R. Ramos, Legal Malpractice: The Profession’s Dirty Little Secret, 47 Vand. L. Rev. 1657, 1664-68 (1995). While these figures represent a less than scientific sample and for the most part reflect claims, not successful judgments, they are cause for concern.

Most malpractice actions are the result of attorney negligence, although there are other bases for such actions including conflict of interest and breach of fiduciary duty. In Missouri, all such actions must be brought as malpractice; there is no separate cause of action for fiduciary breach. Donohoe v. Shughart, Thomson & Kilroy, 900 S.W.2d 624, 629 (Mo. banc 1995). Substantive errors account for over 40% of malpractice claims, while administrative errors and client relations account for another 40% or more of such claims. Contrary to popular belief, it is lawyers in practice over ten years, and not new admits, who account for the largest percentage of malpractice claims, and firms of two to five lawyers have the largest incidence of claims, with solo practitioners not far behind. See Mallen and Smith, § 1.7

There are four central elements to a malpractice claim. "To prevail in a legal malpractice action, these elements must be pled and proven: (1) that an attorney/client relationship existed; (2) that the attorney acted negligently or in breach of contract; (3) that such acts were the proximate cause of plaintiff's damages; and (4) but for attorney's conduct, the plaintiff would have been successful in the prosecution of his underlying claim." McDowell v. Waldron, 920 S.W.2d 555 (Mo. App. 1996); Boatright v. Shaw, 804 S.W.2d 795, 796 (Mo.App.1990).

An attorney-client relationship arises where the parties have agreed to enter into it, or where the client reasonably assumes that the attorney has agreed to the representation and the attorney fails to effectively advise the "client" otherwise. Mallen and Smith, § 8.2 (Supp 1993); see Donohoe, 900 S.W.2d at 626 (attorney-client relation where "clients" can prove they sought and received legal advice and assistance and the attorney intended to undertake to give such advice and assistance on their behalf). Once this relationship arises, the normal duty is to do all things reasonably necessary to fulfill the objective of the employment.

A difficult question in malpractice litigation is whether an attorney can be held liable for malpractice not by the client, but by third parties to the transaction at issue. Should such liability be permitted? Although Missouri courts had refused to recognize third party liability, they finally did so in Donohoe. The court concluded:

[T]he first element of a legal malpractice action may be satisfied by establishing as a matter of fact either that an attorney-client relationship exists between the plaintiff and defendant or an attorney-client relationship existed in which the attorney-defendant performed services specifically intended by the client to benefit plaintiffs. As a separate matter, the question of legal duty of attorneys to non-clients will be determined by weighing the factors in the modified balancing test. The factors are:

  1. the existence of a specific intent by the client that the purpose of the attorney's services were to benefit the plaintiffs.

  2. the foreseeability of the harm to the plaintiffs as a result of the attorney's negligence.

  3. the degree of certainty that the plaintiffs will suffer injury from attorney misconduct.

  4. the closeness of the connection between the attorney's conduct and the injury.

  5. the policy of preventing future harm.

  6. the burden on the profession of recognizing liability under the circumstances.

900 S.W.2d at 628-29. Thus, intended beneficiaries of a failed testamentary transfer may well have the ability to sue the attorney who drafted the will for malpractice. Id. at 629.

The standard of care required is generally that degree of care, skill, professional knowledge and diligence which is commonly possessed by members of the legal profession. Comment, Attorney Liability for Unintentional Malpractice in Missouri, 39 Mo. L. Rev. 400, 401 (1974). Mere loss of a case, and even bad judgment, are generally not held sufficient to give rise to malpractice liability. Mallen & Smith, § 14.1; Comment, supra at 401. There is a split of authority on whether the rules of professional responsibility establish the duty of care, or are even relevant or admissible for this purpose. Most courts reject the view that ethics violations establish malpractice, see, e.g., Annotated Rules, at xix. More courts permit the rules to be used as evidence or to be part of an expert witness’s conclusions, see id. at xx-xxi. In Missouri, an attorney cannot be held liable for a breach of an ethical rule, Williams v. Preman, 911 S.W.2d 288, 300 (Mo. App. 1995); Greening v. Klamen, 652 S.W.2d 730, 734 (Mo. App. 1984). Moreover, it is potentially reversible error to either admit the content of such rules into evidence or to allow an expert to refer to them. Bross v. Denney, 791 S.W.2d 416, 420 (Mo. App. 1990).

Generally, the most difficult hurdles for a malpractice plaintiff are causation and damages. In order to recover, a client must demonstrate that the wrongful conduct of the attorney was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury. In litigation situations, this often means the client must show that, but for the attorney's breach of duty, the client would have been entitled to money or property which he or she did not receive. In such cases, the client-plaintiff must show that the underlying claim was valid and would have produced recovery. This leads to the trial of the underlying case in the malpractice action. Comment, supra at 403-404; see also Williams v. Preman, supra. Complicated issues can arise where the underlying case has been settled. See, e.g., Williams v. Preman, supra.; Bross, 791 S.W.2d at 421.

While the hurdles to be faced by malpractice plaintiffs are not insignificant, as stated, the incidence of claims and recoveries has risen substantially in recent years. While malpractice insurance is available and desirable, there is no substitute for conducting one's practice so as to avoid legal malpractice claims. See Stern, Avoiding Legal Malpractice Claims (5th edit. 1987); Smith and Mallen, Preventing Legal Malpractice (2d edit. 1996).

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