What is the “standard of care” in legal malpractice cases?

Under the California Rules of Professional Conduct, one of the duties attorneys owe to their clients is to act with competence in representing their clients’ interests. This means acting with reasonable legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation in handling every aspects of a client’s case. When an attorney fails to act competently, his or her client may be entitled to recover damages in a legal malpractice claim.

Legal malpractice litigation is an important avenue of recovery for those whose interests have been harmed as a result of substandard legal representation. To build an effective legal malpractice case, the plaintiff has to show that the attorney failed to exercise the level of skill, knowledge and care that a reasonably careful attorney would use in similar circumstances. 

Whether or not an attorney acted with reasonable care in any given set of circumstances is ordinarily based on the opinions of expert witnesses. The testimony of an expert witness is used to establish the appropriate standard of care for the community in which the legal representation occurred. Expert testimony is not always necessary to prove legal malpractice, though. In some cases, an attorney’s negligence may be so clear that a judge or jury may make a finding of legal malpractice even without expert testimony.

The standard of care is supposed to take into account whether the attorney held himself or herself out to be a specialist in his or her field. An attorney who has extensive experience in an area of practice is held to a higher degree of care than one who does not. Experts providing testimony with respect to representation provided by an attorney specializing in a given field of practice are required to be sufficiently knowledgeable in that area of practice.

One rule that has come down from the courts is that when an attorney’s negligent investigation, advice, or conduct in handling a case results in the loss of a meritorious claim, this conduct should be deemed legal malpractice. In other words, an attorney who negligently botches a lawsuit that has legal merit has committed legal malpractice.

Those who have been harmed by negligent legal representation shouldn’t feel that the legal system has let them down. Working with an experienced legal malpractice attorney will allow them to determine their options for seeking compensation and ensure they have the best possible representation.