A Virginia woman has filed a lawsuit against her defense attorney to the tune of $10,000,000. The suit alleges that Francis Chester, a veteran attorney of 50 years, committed legal malpractice during his work defending her against allegations of punching a police officer.
The woman had charges brought against her by the police officer who said he was punched while serving a warrant to arrest the woman’s son. The jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to a 6 month jail term. After filing her own writ of habeas corpus on the grounds of ineffective council, the judge agreed, let her out and she filed suit. The suit cited the fact that the lawyer failed to make the option of a lesser sentence available and instead proceeded with a “freedom or felony” defense. The woman also says Chester had a conflict of interest in representing her son as well and made her testify in her son’s trial that she did punch the police officer. Chester denies wrongdoing, says that the tactics of the defense were approved by the woman and he had no conflicts of interest.
While the amount sued for may be unprecedented and extreme, the matter bring to the surface a number of important items for firms to consider:
1) Client Selection
While it is hard to judge a client’s propensity to sue, it is important to have a formalized client selection process to weed out potential liability risks. Having a formal and robust client selection protocols can save a firm from headaches down the road – whether that is a litigious client, a client that doesn’t pay or a client that demands excessive attention.
While an initial engagement letter serves to outline the scope of the work and aids in preventing engagement creep, ongoing documentation is vital. Each juncture and decision in a matter should be discussed and cleared with the client. When the decision is left to the client, rather than being held in the attorney’s purview, it is important to obtain formal documentation of the decision. This will avoid future disputes as to the direction of the case or engagement.
3) Conflict of Interest
While the alleged conflict of interest in this particular case is moot, it serves to highlight the need for firms to be diligent with their conflict of interest checks. Attorneys should clear potential conflicts through the firm partners or central clearing system. Sole practitioners must be especially diligent when deciding themselves if their may be a perceived conflict in the work they are engaged to perform.
Professional liability lawsuits against law firms are bound to happen. What you do to prepare for them and what you do after they occur is what matters. It is important to have tight internal controls and robust insurance in place well before a matter arises. Because lawyer’s malpractice insurance is on a “claims made” trigger, having coverage in place from the start of the firm is prudent.
To further understand “claims made” insurance, learn additional risk management tips or to discuss an adequate risk transfer program for your firm, contact a licensed broker today.