Understanding Your Duty of Care as a New Lawyer

As a new lawyer, you have a certain responsibility to your clients. Failing in that duty could leave you open to claims of professional negligence. It’s important to understand what professional negligence is, how it differs from ordinary negligence and what it means to you as a lawyer.

Understanding Professional Negligence

Professional negligence occurs when professionals fail to take proper care when working with their clients. In terms of your working relationships, clients expect you to keep them from financial, physical and/or emotional harm. If you fail to do this, you may be accused of breaching your duty of care.

In many ways, professional negligence is very similar to ordinary negligence. In both cases, individuals fail to take reasonable care.

As a lawyer, you’re expected to take reasonable measures to avoid hurting your clients. This is what's known as duty of care. It is your duty to avoid foreseeable injuries. Examples of legal negligence may include:

  • Fraud or dishonesty
  • Providing poor or incorrect legal advice
  • Poor drafting of a financial agreement
  • Suing the wrong party
  • Imposing unacceptable delays
  • Missing the time limitations on a case

More than half of legal malpractice claims are due to:

  • Procedural or planning errors
  • Failure to apply/know the law
  • Procrastination in performance (e.g. missing a deadline)
  • Failure to obtain the client’s consent
  • Poor investigation or discovery

Nearly 80% of claims are brought against solo practitioners or lawyers working in small firms of with 2-5 lawyers.

If you make a critical error that no “reasonable attorney” would make and that error leads to real injuries and damages, you may be accused of professional negligence.

Even as a new lawyer, you are expected to know and understand your responsibility as a professional. After all, you work in the legal field and should have specialized knowledge of the law.

How Professional Negligence Can Affect Your Career

As far as the court is concerned, your relationships with your clients makes your duty pretty clear. You’re a lawyer. You attended (and graduated) law school. You passed the bar exam. You're licensed to practice law in your state. Clients should expect a professional level of service from you.

A negligence claim puts both your career and your reputation on the line. Clients will think twice before working with you if someone has accused you of professional negligence.

As a new lawyer, it’s important to take careful steps to ensure that you provide your clients with the level of care they require.

It’s important to be open and honest about whether you have the right skills, knowledge and training to handle each case that comes your way. Now is not the time to venture out into new areas of practice in which you have no experience.

If you have a client or a case that is beyond your competence level and you do not have the time or resources to obtain the expertise needed for the case, decline the case. No matter how lucrative the opportunity, the risk of legal malpractice far outweighs any monetary reward for the case.

Listen to your gut and use common sense when evaluating a case. Many attorneys who are sued for malpractice regret not listening to their instincts and declining representation. 

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