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Seattle Legal Malpractice Attorney

Seattle Legal Malpractice Attorney

          My lawyer isn’t fighting for me! My lawyer lost an unlosable case! I have a bad attorney! If these complaints sound familiar to you, you may be considering filing a legal malpractice lawsuit against your lawyer. A legal malpractice lawsuit is possible when your lawyer fails to meet the standard of care expected of them. However, legal malpractice has a specific definition and can often be quite difficult to prove.

          In this article, we’ll discuss legal negligence lawsuits: what they are, when to file them, and what compensation you might be entitled to. These types of lawsuits are tricky but they help perpetuate a fair justice system. If your lawyer failed to act like a reasonable attorney and you believe that you received a worse outcome because of it, a legal negligence lawsuit may be a viable option. 

          But how do I file the lawsuit? What kind of damages can I sue for? These are great questions and we’ll get to them but let’s first start at the beginning.

What Is Legal Malpractice?

          Legal malpractice occurs when your attorney fails to meet the standard of care expected of them. You can guess at what this standard may be by asking: “What would a reasonable attorney have done?” If your outcome suffered because your lawyer didn’t meet this standard, you may have a legal malpractice case on your hands.

          The Washington State Bar Association, the governing authority for Washington Attorneys, outlines the Washington Rules of Professional Conduct. This clarifies what you should expect from your lawyer. Though it is not all-inclusive, any violation of its rules may be malpractice.

  • Highlights from The ABA’s Rules of Professional Conduct:
      • Operate under attorney-client confidentiality unless it is waived
      • Act professionally and competently 
      • Avoid conflicts of interest that the client is unaware of
      • Communicate adequately with the client

Some of these guidelines are certainly more vague than others. Therefore, if you think you may have a claim it is worth reading more on the WSBA’s website. However, the essence behind legal malpractice is the essence behind all malpractice: negligence.

The Foundation of Legal Malpractice

Legal negligence in a legal malpractice case legal malpractice attorneys

          All malpractice has roots in negligence. Negligence is simply the idea that someone has failed to meet the standard of care expected of them. Ordinary negligence is simply failing to act as an ordinary person is expected to act but there are special types, too. Doctors, lawyers, and government officials have unique standards of care and the list doesn’t end there. 

However, negligence does share some characteristics across all variations:

  1. The negligent party had a duty to the you (this part varies the most between negligence types. Doctors, lawyers, and ordinary citizens have very different duties to patients, clients, and society);
  2. The negligent party breached that duty;
  3. The breach was the cause of harm;
  4. You suffered some sort of financial or other injury.

          A common example of legal malpractice would be if your lawyer failed to file a case before the statute of limitations expires (read more on the statute of limitations here.) This negligent action is a clear failure to meet a lawyer’s standard of care and often results in a legal malpractice lawsuit.

          Other arguments are harder to make, however. If you just think your lawyer’s argument was weak, you may not be able to sue for legal malpractice. How do you prove that they didn’t meet the standard of care? More importantly, how do you prove that you’d have won if their arguments were stronger?

           Though legal malpractice cases are hard to prove, there are a few boxes that, when checked off, make the case much easier to win.

How Do I Prove Legal Malpractice?

Expert Witnesses

    • When trying to prove that someone failed to meet a professional standard of care, it’s important to consult someone who understands the profession. Other lawyers are often called in legal malpractice cases because they understand the duties of a lawyer. They’re able to speak with authority on whether a lawyer failed to meet the expected standard of care. 
    • Washington rule of evidence 702 establishes what an expert witness is (read more here.) To summarize, an expert witness is somebody who provides relevant and reliable testimony based on the facts at issue. 

Gather Evidence

    • First, you’ll want to prove a pillar of negligence: that the lawyer had a duty to you. Experienced legal malpractice attorneys will likely be able to tell you if a duty existed or not. In cases where there is a gray area, expert witnesses and case precedent may help clarify this duty. 
    • Second, you’ll need to prove that your lawyer breached their duty. It’s important to keep all relevant evidence in your possession and to conduct research as you build a claim. You may also contact your attorney and request a copy of your file. They cannot refuse to provide your file, and it will help in the evaluation of your malpractice claim.
    • Third, you’ll have to prove that harm occurred as a result of this breach. This causal relationship is often the most difficult part of a legal negligence lawsuit to prove. How does one know if they would’ve won with another lawyer? It’s important to keep any supporting evidence you had for the initial lawsuit. 
    • Finally, you’ll prove that you suffered an injury. What size award did you miss out on because of your lawyer’s negligence? Expert testimony and your court record may help to support your claim. 

Contact a New Attorney

    • We get it. You might not want to hire a new attorney if your last one missed a court date. However, hiring a legal malpractice attorney to represent you is important as they have a wealth of experience in proving these complex cases. 
    • The Hornbuckle Firm has experienced legal malpractice attorneys that can help you build a claim and determine whether your lawyer breached a duty they had to you. We offer a free consultation and are happy to walk you through this difficult process. 

Contact Your State Bar Association

    • State Bar associations determine who can practice law in their state. If you file a complaint to your state’s Bar Association, they may confirm that your lawyer violated the standard of care. If this happens, it will greatly support your legal malpractice claim.

When Should I Sue My Lawyer for Legal Malpractice?

Can you sue your attorney for misrepresentation?

          The statute of limitations in Washington for legal malpractice is three years, so it’s essential to file your lawsuit before that window closes. You have time to recruit a new trustworthy lawyer and build your case, but it’s best to act quickly. 

          It may also help your case if you file while your lawyer’s malpractice is still fresh in your mind and other witnesses are still near by. It’s generally best to file a lawsuit within a year of the event.

How Much is a Legal Malpractice Case Worth?

          Under most circumstances, if you’re a victim of legal malpractice, you’re entitled to however much money you would’ve won if you had a reasonable attorney. This is usually the extent of the recoverable damages. However, on certain occasions, emotional damages can also be recovered. 

          In a landmark case, Washington’s supreme court determined that emotional damages can only be recovered if “significant emotional distress is foreseeable” or “the attorney’s conduct is particularly egregious” (Schmidt v. Coogan.) This means that certain victims of legal malpractice may be able to recover emotional damages.

Imagine that in their malpractice, your lawyer leaked a very sensitive document, causing you to lose a job. If this happened, you might be able to recover emotional damages. However, if you claim to have suffered emotional damages resulting simply from financial loss, emotional damages will likely be out of reach.

Should I Settle A Legal Malpractice Lawsuit Out of Court?

          Many legal malpractice lawsuits are settled out of court. Some shady lawyers will even offer you money if you agree to not pursue legal action. This one-on-one deal can be legal if the lawyer obtains your informed consent and you freely and knowingly waive your right to sue. However, this almost never happens and direct negotiations with the lawyer are usually a bad idea. 

          Far more frequently, the injured party will get a new lawyer. Then, they can sue their old lawyer in a court of law or settle out of court through their lawyer. This option is much safer and often provides you with better compensation.

Can I Sue My Lawyer for Breach of Contract?

Can I sue my lawyer for breach of contract?

          Yes but the claim should be brought along with a negligence claim. An
attorney can be liable for a breach of contract, but many malpractice cases are based on negligence. The negligence claim is important, and it’s best not to rely on a breach of contact claim.

          Most of the time lawyers and clients will have a written or oral contract defining the scope of the representation. But it can be difficult to recast the malpractice as a breach of that agreement. You have to prove a material breach of the contract. Because legal outcomes are often uncertain, contracts are rarely signed concerning an attorney’s performance in the courtroom. 

          However, let’s say you have an extraordinarily cocky lawyer. In this example, they sign a contract with you saying they will win your case. They’re negligent in filing the lawsuit, however, and your case never makes it to the courtroom. Now, your bad lawyer could be on the hook for breach of contract and legal negligence. 

  • Material breach of contract is different from regular breach of contract. A material breach means the heart of the contract has been violated. If your lawyer promises you a very specific service and does not follow through, that may be a material breach. But if you lawyer largely provides the services promised but misses a few things, that may not be a material breach.

Can I Sue My Lawyer If I Win?

          Yes! As long as your lawyer caused you harm by failing to meet the standard of care expected of a similar attorney, you can sue them for legal malpractice. If you don’t get any award because of your attorney’s negligence, you may be able to sue your attorney. 

          As you may expect, you can also sue your attorney if you lose by more than you should’ve. Imagine you’re being sued for hitting someone with your car. Imagine the average settlement cost is X dollars, but because of your lawyer’s negligence, you end up settling for 10*X! In this case, you may be able to sue your lawyer for legal negligence if a reasonably careful attorney would have been able to reach a fair settlement.

What’s the Takeaway?

          Losing a case that you should’ve won can be infuriating. Many people are tempted to sue their lawyer after a tough loss. However, it’s important to make sure your lawyer breached an attorney’s standard of care before filing. If they didn’t breach the standard of care, you can’t sue them for legal malpractice.

          That’s where the experienced legal malpractice attorneys at The Hornbuckle Firm can help. They have experience interpreting the legal standard of care and can help assess the validity of your case. The Hornbuckle Firm has a winning record with legal malpractice cases and will work hard to get you the outcome you deserve.

Our Attorneys

The Challenges of Proving Legal Malpractice

However, legal malpractice cases can be very difficult to win because they involve proving more than mere substandard representation. The standard of care for Washington attorneys requires them to fulfill “a duty to use that degree of skill, care, diligence, and knowledge possessed and used by a reasonable, careful, and prudent attorney in the State of Washington acting in the same or similar circumstances.” Unless a lawyer has held him or herself out to be a specialist in a given area of the law, he or she will not be required to do anything more than proceed in the manner that “a reasonable attorney” would.

Another of the legal elements of a legal malpractice case that often makes such cases particularly challenging is the causation requirement. To prevail, the Plaintiff in a legal malpractice case must prove that it is more likely true than not that he or she would have obtained a more favorable outcome in the underlying legal case. For most types of claims, this requires Plaintiff to prove that he or she would have won the underlying case in the absence of the attorney’s negligence, and to establish in monetary terms what the better result in the case that he or she would have received would have been. These challenges can make certain types of cases overwhelmingly difficult to prove legal malpractice, such as criminal defense cases, in which the requisite burden for a defendant to prove that a jury would have found him or her not guilty could easily prove insurmountable. In practical terms, proving a legal malpractice case is twice the amount of work of proving the original case, because the success of the claim depends upon the merits of the legal malpractice case itself and the separate but related merits of the case-within-a-case. To win, the Plaintiff’s attorney must successfully prove both.

The Hornbuckle Firm Can Help

In a legal malpractice case, juries are also instructed that “A poor legal outcome does not, by itself, establish that the attorney was negligent.” Similar to other types of professional malpractice, the law provides protection from suit brought merely on the grounds of a client’s dissatisfaction with the result of his or her case. Instead, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the lawyer did not handle the case competently and lost specifically for that reason.

The best way to learn if you have a potential claim for legal malpractice is by discussing your concerns with an experienced and trusted Seattle legal malpractice attorney.

To schedule your free consultation with our legal malpractice attorney, please contact The Hornbuckle Firm online or by calling (425) 679-0742 today. We welcome clients from Seattle, Tacoma, and all surrounding areas at our convenient Bellevue location.


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