It’s quite normal for an attorney to have an emotional response after learning a malpractice claim is on the way. Problems arise, however, if the emotional response happens to be an irrational response that doesn’t get worked through. Sometimes the situation is viewed as a personal affront. “How dare my client do this” or “How dare someone question my abilities!” Sometimes the response is one of dismay. “I can’t believe this is happening” or “Surely my client must be misinformed.” Others respond with an outright denial of the situation, perhaps out of a fear of the unknown. “This will never go anywhere” or “To even acknowledge it would give it unwarranted credence so I’m going to completely ignore it.” There are even those whose response is one of extreme embarrassment. These folks do everything they can to hide the situation from everyone including their partners and those who could be of great help in trying to fix the problem, for example, their malpractice insurer. “What are you talking about?” or “What claim? There is no claim.” If you ever fear you are about to find yourself on the receiving end of a malpractice claim, it’s in your best interest to do all that you can to work through your emotions or at least keep any unwarranted ones in check.
Can you give an example of how an emotional response can cause problems?
Sure, here is a great example. On occasion, an attorney is well aware that a mistake has been made but the client has no idea that something has gone wrong. Think blowing a statute of limitations date or the trial court granting summary judgment against your client due to procedural failures that were your fault. When something like this happens, sometimes an attorney will ignore or try to hide the situation out of a problematic emotional response like fear or embarrassment. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, don’t go there. Just as an infection can wreck physical havoc if left unattended or not properly treated, a known incident you completely ignore or try to hide will only make things worse.
And why is that?
For starters, any significant delay in informing the client and/or in failing to timely and responsibly address the situation can all too easily be spun as you putting your own interests above the interests of your client. Trust me, juries can have field days with that one. Making matters worse, serious coverage concerns can also come into play due to a failure to timely report in accordance with your malpractice policy provisions. The best option will always be to immediately report the situation to your malpractice carrier, even before talking with your client. Let them do what you’ve paid them to do, which is handle these kinds of matters.
What’s the better course of action?
Once you become aware that a misstep has occurred or are informed that a claim is headed your way, stop and take a few moments to just process and feel whatever it is you feel. This isn’t the time to start making decisions about how to deal with it. If you feel pulling and reviewing the subject file would be helpful, have at it. Just don’t go any further. For example, hoping to strengthen your position by adding or removing something from the file would be a bad idea. Just report the situation to your malpractice carrier and wait for their guidance or the guidance of defense counsel if one is retained. Listen to whatever advice is shared and let these folks do their job.
We all have heard the saying “attorneys make the worst clients.” This is the time to really take that advice to heart. You are now a client. Don’t try to be your own lawyer if for no other reason than your judgment may be impaired due to all the emotions that are now coming into play. You are simply too close, too involved. You wouldn’t have your clients handle their own lawsuits, would you? Follow your own advice and don’t try to handle your own. Yes, this does mean that regardless of the merits of any allegations, you shouldn’t even take it upon yourself to respond to a demand letter or a complaint because doing so could do more harm than good. This is not to say that you shouldn’t meaningfully participate in your defense. Of course you should, just do so as the client.
Unfortunately, some attorneys will continue to want to act as their own lawyer and ultimately ignore the legal advice they are receiving. This often happens with attorneys who suffer from that debilitating illness otherwise known as an inflated ego. Others will sometimes allow their emotions to spin out of control which will only exacerbate the entire situation. I can’t say this enough. Don’t go there.
My best advice is for you to respond as the professional you are. I can share that not all incidents turn into claims and, for those that do, many are resolved without a loss being paid. Remember that. With any luck, the problem may be something that can be addressed and resolved favorably for all involved through claims repair.
A final thought is to encourage you to view all malpractice claims and incidents as a learning opportunity when you are emotionally able to do so. No one is a bad attorney or a bad person simply because they made a mistake. True professionals respond by looking critically at all aspects of the incident or claim in order to consider how the situation might have been avoided or handled differently. Look for it. It’s there. The purpose is to understand what happened and learn from it if for no other reason than to make sure something similar won’t ever happen again. You might ask the following. What could have prevented the problem? What procedural changes could be made? What might I have done differently? Asking and answering these kinds of questions can lead to very positive results going forward if you take advantage of the opportunity. Don’t miss it. Personally, I believe that no one is defined by the mistakes that he or she makes in life. Rather, we each are defined by how we respond to the mistakes we make. Seek to be better for the experience. After all, isn’t that part of what it means to be a professional? I certainly think so.