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Can I sue my unethical attorney?

Ethics violations can get an attorney suspended or even barred from practicing law. By itself, that does not necessarily mean you can recover money from that attorney in a lawsuit.

A man walks into a bar, the joke goes. He looks upset. The bartender, concerned, asks what the problem is.

"All attorneys are jerks," the man replies.

"Hey, I take offense to that!" another man, sitting a ways down the bar, pipes up.

"Oh, you're an attorney?" The first asks.

"No, I'm a jerk!" says the other guy.

Most attorneys are capable, ethical and responsible. There are exceptions.

Lawyers are the punch lines to many jokes. Fortunately, most attorneys are nothing like the stereotype of greedy, irresponsible scoundrels often portrayed. But a minority of attorneys do not live up to the high ethical and professional standards set by the Massachusetts State Bar Association ("MSBA") and fellow members of the legal profession.

If you have experienced unethical representation by an attorney, you may be successful in a legal malpractice lawsuit, which can help you recover the money you should have obtained in your first legal action, but did not, due to the negligence, incompetence or fraud of your previous attorney.

Ethical violations do not necessarily lead to malpractice cases

Violations of Massachusetts attorney regulations are not, by themselves, reasons for civil liability. In other words, your lawsuit will not be successful just because your attorney had his or her license to practice law suspended or the MSBA issued a public reprimand.

However, evidence from hearings regarding an attorney's ethics violations may be useful in a legal malpractice lawsuit. While the evidence alone may not be enough to win your case against your former attorney, evidence that your attorney did not live up to accepted standards for lawyers can help show that the lawyer may have committed malpractice.

Grounds for a lawsuit

You must have a specific complaint against your attorney in order to pursue a claim of legal malpractice. Legal fees and a lower-than-expected settlement or jury award are common complaints, but these alone are generally not enough to bring a legal malpractice claim. Note that there are exceptions, such as your lawyer committing fraud in his or her billing of your case, your lawyer not being properly prepared, your lawyer failing to satisfactorily explain settlement options or the risk of not settling, or if the attorney accepted a settlement without your informed consent.

Broadly, however, successful legal malpractice claims typically involve:

  • Negligence (e.g., your attorney missed a deadline to file a claim)
  • Fraud (e.g., your attorney made a claim he or she knew to be false to get you to act in a certain way)
  • Breach of fiduciary duty (e.g., your attorney misused your funds)

Contrasting examples may help illustrate the point. If your attorney did not reply to all of your phone calls promptly, seemed disinterested and did not get you the outcome you expected, you are likely frustrated and may feel your attorney acted unprofessionally. This is not enough for a legal malpractice claim.

However, if your attorney failed to keep you informed about your case, missed deadlines, and lost your case as a result, then you have a good case for legal malpractice. You may also wish to report your attorney to the MSBA for investigation under those circumstances.

More questions? Talk to an attorney experienced with bringing malpractice claims

The success of a legal malpractice case will depend on the actions of your previous attorney, the underlying claim that makes you want to sue your former attorney, and other factors.

At Phillips, Silver, Talman, Aframe & Sinrich, P.C, our attorneys can help you understand your legal options and the merits of a potential legal malpractice claim. Contact our office to discuss the particulars of your situation.

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