Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 6, 2012

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Recently, a jury awarded a plaintiff suing the law firm that represented her in a car accident lawsuit $2 million because her former lawyers pressured her into settling her legal case for too little.  Complaints against former attorneys are not uncommon, particularly when the ex-client gets less money than anticipated or finds themselves on the losing end of a case.  When the complaint translates into such a large monetary award, the case is worthy of a discussion about the attorney-client relationship.

When attorneys are sworn in to the practice of law they accept a code of ethics that guides the legal practice.  Important in that code is the ethical rule that every attorney must always put the best interests of the clients first, and must dedicate themselves to each client they represent.  If the attorneys in this case pressured their client into a settlement for less than she deserved, then they violated the ethical standards so important to the profession.

If an attorney has acted unethically, and their client suffered a financial harm as a result, then the client has a legal cause of action against that attorney for malpractice.  In order to win an attorney malpractice case, the client must demonstrate that their attorney did not act with the standard of professionalism that the legal practice requires.  In this case, the client was able to prove to a jury that her former attorneys did not act in a way that a professional attorney should act when handling her auto accident lawsuit.  As such, she was able to recover a significant damage award to compensate her for the money she lost  out on because her former attorneys pressured her into a low settlement.

Attorney malpractice lawsuits like this one serve as an accountability check on practicing lawyers.  Attorneys, who carry malpractice insurance just like doctors and hospitals, know that if they fail to represent their clients to the best of their ability, then they face legal action holding them accountable.  Along with punishments handed out by the American Bar Association for unethical behavior, malpractice lawsuits ensure high standards of performance for every attorney.

When presented with a settlement offer for their client, attorneys should be able to evaluate whether or not it is a good offer considering the facts of the case and the needs of the client.  It is perfectly acceptable for an attorney to give their opinion of a settlement offer providing the opinion is made with the best interest of the client in mind, and the lawyer has given the client enough information so they can make an informed decision.  An attorney fails to take the client’s best interest into account when they recommend a client settle to make the case to go away because the potential payoff from a lawsuit is not worth the work required for the attorney to get it. 

Unfortunately, this type of judgment is easy for busy law firms and attorneys to make because lawsuits and ongoing negotiations require additional work from the attorney, and with that work comes additional costs. A case that settles quickly and without significant effort by an attorney can be more profitable for the firm than a larger judgment award from a jury. Faced with pressure to make a firm profitable, an attorney can easily adjust their view of what is in the client’s best interest to match the firm’s best interest by convincing themselves that the client’s case is not that strong and a quick settlement benefits everyone.  In other words, attorneys who wrongfully push for a quick settlement may not always be doing so maliciously – they may have simply allowed their interests to influence what they think the client’s are. 

In this particular case, such a high judgment award strongly indicates the attorneys knew what they were doing or had some sort of systematic approach to auto accident settlements that favored quick resolution.  The firm’s analysis of the case was likely too focused on what was most profitable for the attorneys, and not focused on what was best for the clients. Cases like this raise interesting points about the relationship between an attorney, their client, and the need to run a profitable law firm.  Without question, every attorney needs to put the client first and needs to be very cautious about creating pressure to agree to a settlement that is not in the client’s best interest.  As this case illustrates, when a firm and an attorney begin to put their own interests first, a malpractice suit can hold them accountable.