The short answer to the question is a qualified yes (at least in some states). While clients are not liable for legal malpractice, there are circumstances where the client may have done something or failed to do something that contributed to the bad outcome. This might result in the reduction or elimination of damages in the legal malpractice case at the time of trial.
Yes, clients have responsibilities too (such as such as being truthful, turning over all documents requested, and responding to questions from their attorneys in a timely fashion).
In one case, the clients were represented by legal counsel in the sale of their business for more than $2 million. Only a very small portion of the sales price was paid up front. The buyers of the business not only defaulted almost immediately after the sale, but also criminally misappropriated $1 million from the business. After a jury trial in the legal malpractice action, the legal malpractice defendants in that case were found to be negligent for failing to advise the clients to get sufficient security for the sale.
However, the jury reduced the amount of damages awarded to the clients after it determined that the clients were responsible for failing to investigate the background of the buyers. (The technical legal term for that is “comparative negligence”)
In that case, it turned out that the law firm was not retained to do the investigation of the buyers, and had suggested to the clients that the buyers be investigated.
When you hire an attorney, it is important that you seriously consider any advice given because if you don’t follow it, the bad outcome may end up being your responsibility, at least in part.
Another point to remember– make sure you understand what you are being represented for and don’t make any assumptions. This is particularly true for business and real estate transactions when there may be many things that are required above and beyond the lawyer simply advising about the transaction and drafting a contract. An attorney is not likely to be held negligent for something beyond the scope of responsibility as detailed in a retainer agreement.
An interesting side note to the above case: the law firm also tried to blame the buyers (who had committed criminal acts related to the purchase), claiming the attorneys could not have foreseen such criminal conduct. The jury held that the attorneys were responsible regardless of what the buyers did because the attorneys had negligently failed to give the proper advice regarding security for the sale that would have protected the sellers.
(Click here for a brief summary of my other blog posts on various legal malpractice related issues)
(Disclaimer: Please note that nothing in this blog or website is legal advice, and this post does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult with an attorney for any legal malpractice issues, fee dispute, or ethical concerns that you may have. Thanks!)
Copyright (c) 2014 by Howard Altschuler, All Rights Reserved