A New Jersey Legal Malpractice Attorney Serving Those Who Have Been Wronged by Their Attorney
When you hire an attorney, you trust that they will handle your case with the necessary competence and diligence in order to achieve the best possible outcome. While results are never guaranteed, many negative results could have been avoided. Lawyers who are negligent in handling their cases or engage in unethical conduct may be held liable for legal malpractice. Losing your case or having your rights compromised due to legal malpractice is incredibly frustrating. Even worse, it can result in severe economic losses. If you have been harmed as a result of legal negligence, you need an experienced Union County legal malpractice lawyer on your side who can help undo the damage. Unfortunately, legal malpractice cases can be quite difficult, but our New Jersey legal malpractice attorneys can provide you with the guidance you need.
The Two Main Components of a New Jersey Legal Malpractice Case
Legal malpractice cases can be incredibly complex. In order to understand their complexity, it is helpful to break them down into their two main components:
- Your lawyer was negligent in handling your case or engaged in otherwise unethical conduct; and
- Your lawyer’s negligence compromised your interests or the outcome of your case.
Unethical conduct, such as representing you despite a conflict of interest, is comparatively straightforward. Unfortunately, malpractice cases involving negligence can be more difficult to prove. Some of the more straightforward examples of negligence include missing filing deadlines, failing to conduct a thorough investigation of the facts, or conducting an incomplete analysis of the legal issues of your case.
Even if you can establish negligence or demonstrate unethical conduct, the second component, that your case was compromised as a direct result of their negligence, can be even more difficult to prove. You may need to appeal or re-litigate substantial portions of your case in order to prove that the outcome would have been better were it not for the lawyer’s negligence.
Legal malpractice can also occur in non-litigation matters, which can sometimes be even more challenging. Except in cases that are truly egregious, you will likely need a trained legal eye to review your case and determine whether your interests were compromised by legal malpractice. As a result, involving a Union County legal malpractice lawyer is essential to evaluate your claim.
What to Do if You Believe You Are the Victim of Legal Malpractice In New Jersey
If you have suffered from legal malpractice, you may need to sue your former attorney. Before you can do that, you must take the following steps:
- Obtain your case file from your lawyer. Your lawyer’s file ultimately belongs to you, so do not let them try to withhold it. You are entitled to a copy of your entire file, including any work product that was generated in connection with your case. This includes internal memoranda, correspondence with opposing parties, legal pleadings, and notes.
- Gather any notes, bills, correspondence, or other documents related to your case that you may have in your possession. The documents that you have may be invaluable in proving that your lawyer committed malpractice. On the other hand, they may attempt to withhold certain documents or simply have lost records due to their negligence in handling your case.
- Research New Jersey legal negligence lawyers. Once you have identified an attorney who will be a good fit, you can schedule an appointment to review your case. You should go to your initial consultation prepared to discuss your case in-depth, so bring your file and any other documents you may have. A New Jersey legal malpractice attorney can then give you substantive advice on your options and recommend what steps you should take to move forward.
An experienced legal negligence lawyer can help you undo the damage you have suffered due to legal malpractice.
What You Have to Prove in Legal Malpractice Case
It is easy to accuse an attorney of legal malpractice, but proving your case can be quite difficult. The fact that your case was unsuccessful or was handled differently than you would have preferred is not sufficient to prove legal malpractice. In order to prevail, you need to prove all four of the following elements:
- Your lawyer owed you a professional duty;
- Your lawyer breached that duty in some way;
- The breach of their duty was the direct cause of some harm that you suffered; and
- That you suffered financial harm as a result of your lawyer’s actions.
The first element is usually a given; even if you don’t have a written retainer agreement or contract, the relationship may be evidence enough that they owe you a duty.
Most malpractice cases prove that the lawyer breached their duty and caused you harm that resulted in financial loss. As mentioned above, you will first need to prove that the lawyer was negligent or did something unethical. The fact that you received an unsatisfactory outcome is not sufficient. New Jersey legal negligence lawyers will be able to identify how the lawyer breached his duty to you and will know what evidence you will need to prove it.
Proving that the breach resulted in your financial loss is arguably the most difficult aspect of your case. For non-lawyers, it can be almost impossible to prove. If you believe that you have suffered as a result of legal malpractice, we strongly recommend that you interview some New jersey legal negligence lawyers to discuss whether you have a claim.
What is Legal Malpractice?
“Malpractice” is a term that gets thrown around in all kinds of different situations, but it has a fairly specific definition. Malpractice occurs when certain professionals – like doctors and lawyers – do not live up to a certain standard or ethical code.
Lawyers owe their clients what is often called a “duty of care.” That generally means they are expected to exercise the ordinary and reasonable skill, diligence, and knowledge of a member of the bar in all aspects of representing and advising clients. When a lawyer does not live up to this responsibility, that is considered negligence. It can sink not only a particular case but also have significant and lasting consequences for the lawyer’s clients.
Attorneys in New Jersey and other states across the country are also bound by certain ethical rules and restrictions designed to help ensure the fair and just administration of the law and to protect clients. Unethical conduct – whether it is misusing client money, failing to disclose a conflict of interest, or engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a witness or client – can be grounds for a legal malpractice claim in New Jersey.
Why Malpractice Can be Hard to Prove
Just because you are not happy with the outcome of a legal matter and you believe your lawyer is to blame does not mean that you have an actionable legal malpractice claim.
“Open and shut” malpractice cases are exceedingly rare. Not every mistake is a form of malpractice.
Lawyers are not expected to be Perry Mason or Matlock, winning every case with flair and a taste for the dramatic. Instead, they are held to general standards of competence, candor, and ethics. Even when a lawyer clearly makes a mistake, there are often murky questions about whether it rises to the level of malpractice.
For claims alleging that a former lawyer was negligent in handling a matter, it is important to remember that hindsight is 20/20. The lawyer’s actions will be judged based on the circumstances at the time. In other words, put yourself in the attorney’s shoes at the time of the alleged mistake. A decision may have been entirely reasonable at the time, but look like a massive, negligent blunder with the benefit of context and hindsight.
Once you prove negligence or an ethics violation, you also have to prove “causation” or that you were directly harmed as a result. The harm can be financial or legal.
In claims related to lawsuits, that usually means showing that you would have won the case if not for your former lawyer’s negligence or ethical lapse.
This is often called the “case within the case.” It may require a person or entity alleging malpractice to effectively go back and relitigate the original case in order to show how the original lawyer botched it and detail why the outcome would have otherwise been different.
Take, for example, a situation in which a New Jersey manufacturer sues a distributor for breach of contract, alleging that the distributor failed to ship products to customers and causing the manufacturer to lose revenue. If the manufacturer loses in court and later accuses its attorney of malpractice, it has to be able to show that the judge or jury otherwise likely would have ruled in its favor.
This can be difficult, even in cases where the mistake is something clear like missing the deadline to file suit. You still have to be able to show that you likely would have won if the suit had been filed on time. You also have to be able to estimate how much money you would have won and whether it would have been collectible.
Common Types of Legal Malpractice
Missing a Deadline
This is a classic example of legal malpractice. It is a mistake that is so incredibly basic that even the greenest lawyer cannot be excused for making it. And it can have devastating results for clients.
Deadlines come into play in a wide variety of legal matters, but malpractice cases often stem from situations in which a lawyer does not file a lawsuit in time. The statute of limitations is a set of laws that dictate how long a person or entity has, after certain events occur, actually to file suit. If they file after the time expires, the suit is likely to be dismissed without a judge or jury ever seeing the evidence or hearing the arguments.
For example, New Jersey imposes a two-year statute of limitations on most personal injury cases. That means a person injured in a car accident in the Garden State generally has two years from the date of the crash to file suit against a driver or other party responsible for it. If the suit is filed after the deadline passes, it is almost certain to be dismissed. That means the person injured in the accident will not be able to get compensation for medical bills, missed wages, and other consequences of the collision to which he or she might otherwise be entitled.
The specific statute of limitations varies, depending on the type of case. It may be “tolled” – or frozen – in certain situations, but those circumstances are limited.
Conflicts of Interest
Restrictions on conflicts of interest are generally intended to ensure that your lawyer is 100% on your team. They seek to eliminate situations in which your lawyer has the incentive to do anything other than act in your best interests.
A conflict of interest exists when your lawyer has a duty to you and a duty to another person or entity whose interests are contrary to yours.
The most obvious example is that a lawyer cannot represent both the plaintiff – the person or entity suing – and the defendant – the person or entity being sued – in the same lawsuit. A lawyer also cannot represent a plaintiff suing a business in which the lawyer or a family member has an interest.
Conflicts are often much more obscure and complicated, however. They may not be readily apparent, especially when they involve ties to vast corporate entities with layers of subsidiaries and related businesses.
Put simply, a lawyer cannot mess with a client’s money.
Many lawyers require clients to pay a retainer or upfront fee when they are hired in order to start working on the matter. This money is supposed to be used for costs and expenses related to the case. The attorney cannot “borrow” it for personal purposes.
Similarly, settlement payments and money paid to a client as part of a court judgment are often funneled through the person or entity’s lawyer. This money should be kept separate from the attorney’s personal funds and cannot be used by the lawyer for purposes unrelated to the case.
Failing to Disclose a Settlement Offer
Many legal disputes do not go all the way through trial and are instead resolved via a negotiated settlement. This is an attractive option in many cases because it allows both sides to move on without a long and potentially costly court fight in which no one knows what will happen.
Settlement talks can happen at any time, from even before a lawsuit is filed to after a jury has returned a verdict. Although talks are just that – talk – until an actual agreement is reached, lawyers have a duty to their clients to tell them if a settlement offer has been made. This is an essential part of keeping clients up to speed on the status of their cases and, more importantly, giving them the information they need to make a key decision: whether to accept a settlement or continue litigating.
Of course, a lawyer can advise a client not to take a particular settlement. That may very well be prudent advice in many situations. But the lawyer cannot effectively make the decision himself by simply not telling the client about the offer.
A lawyer’s failure to properly communicate with his or her client can also rise to the level of malpractice in some situations. That depends on the extent of the miscommunication or noncommunication, as well as its impact on the client and the case.
FAQs About Legal Malpractice
What if my lawyer will not return my calls?
This is an all too common situation that is particularly frustrating and aggravating for clients, no matter the legal issue. When an attorney goes AWOL, leaving calls, text messages, and emails unanswered, it is impossible to tell whether he or she is actually working on your case.
Whether it rises to the level of malpractice depends on the situation. That said, you have the right to end your relationship with your lawyer at any time. You also have the right to get your case file and other information if you choose to go elsewhere.
What is the deadline for filing a legal malpractice claim?
The statute of limitations for legal malpractice claims in New Jersey is six years. A person suing for legal malpractice has six years from the date of the conduct that gives rise to the malpractice claim. That deadline does not vary based on the type of injury caused by the alleged malpractice.
What money damages can I get in a malpractice case?
A key question in many malpractice cases is whether the mistake caused actual harm. If the answer is yes, the person suing for malpractice is entitled to monetary damages to address that harm.
That may include compensation for the value of the original claim. Or, it could be the difference between what you recovered in a court ruling or settlement and what you would have recovered if not for the malpractice.
You cannot get back the attorney fees that you paid to the original lawyer, even if he or she has committed malpractice. You can, however, obtain compensation for fees and other costs associated with having to relitigate or file an appeal in the original case.
Additional compensation for emotional distress stemming from the malpractice may be available, but only in certain limited situations. These damages are not likely to be awarded in cases where a client can already get compensation for the financial harm caused by the malpractice.
It is crucial to consider the potential compensation when deciding whether to pursue a legal malpractice claim. These cases can come with significant costs, largely because of the time, effort, and skill that it takes to prove the “case within the case” and the need for expert witnesses to help prove malpractice. The possible monetary damages – and the likelihood of winning – must be compared with the costs associated with moving forward.
Can I pursue other claims against my former lawyer?
It depends on the situation. In some circumstances, the negligence or ethics violations at the center of the malpractice claim may also warrant other civil claims, like:
- Breach of contract
- Breach of fiduciary duty
- Unjust enrichment
A seasoned malpractice attorney can help you evaluate your malpractice case and consider other claims.
Do I need a malpractice attorney?
If you think that your former lawyer was incompetent, unethical or engaged in malpractice, it is only natural for you to be wary about hiring another attorney. That is one reason why it is essential to consult a lawyer with particular experience handling these kinds of cases.
A seasoned legal malpractice lawyer will not only understand the complicated web of rules and laws governing attorney conduct. He or she will also know how to analyze the previous lawyer’s work and determine whether or not the situation was likely to turn out differently if not for the original attorney’s actions.
Speak with a New Jersey Legal Malpractice Lawyer Right Away
If you are currently locked in a dispute with a lawyer or are considering a malpractice claim, it is vital to seek the advice and counsel of an experienced malpractice attorney.
Daniel Silberstein has been working with people and businesses throughout New Jersey for nearly three decades. He has a strong track record of successful results in legal malpractice and other matters.
Our office is conveniently located in Cranford, where we are pleased to offer free initial consultations. Contact us online or call 732-388-8600 to schedule an appointment with New Jersey legal malpractice lawyer Daniel P. Silberstein.
Contact a New Jersey Legal Malpractice Attorney at Daniel P. Silberstein, PC
New Jersey legal malpractice attorney Daniel P. Silberstein has been working with people whose lawyers have wronged for more than 20 years. He understands the challenges these cases present and knows how to meet them. To discuss your case and how we can help, call or email us to schedule a consultation today. Our office is conveniently located in Union County, New Jersey, and we serve clients in Newark, Elizabeth, and more.