For my first real post to AvoidAClaim, I want to focus on the biggest cause of malpractice claims: lawyer/client communication-related errors. Over the last eleven years, by cost and count, more than one-third of LAWPRO claims involved this type of error – almost $25 million or close to 8,200 claims.
The adjacent pie chart shows the amount and proportion of communications related errors relative to the other most common errors we see.
More detail on the different types of errors appears in this article The Biggest Malpractice Claims Risks from the Summer 2008 (Vol. 7 no. 2) issue of LAWPRO Magazine, “practicePRO: Helping Lawyers for 10 Years.”
It is interesting to note that for sole, small, medium and large firms alike, roughly one-third of claims are communications-related. This is a profession-wide issue. More on this in a future post.
There are three types of communication-related errors. The most common is a failure to follow the client’s instructions. Often these claims arise because the lawyer and client disagree on what was said or done –or not said or done. These claims tend to come down to credibility, and in handling claims LAWPRO finds these matters are difficult to successfully defend if the lawyer has not documented the instructions with sufficient notes or other documentation in the file.
The second most common communications error is a failure to obtain the client’s consent or to inform the client. These claims involve the lawyer doing work or taking steps on a matter without client consent (e.g. seeking or agreeing to adjournment; making or accepting a settlement offer); or failing to advise the client of all implications or possible outcomes when decisions are made to follow a certain course of action (e.g. pleading guilty on DWI; exercising a shotgun clause).
Poor communications with a client is the third most common communications error. These claims often involve a failure to explain to the client information about administrative things such as the timing of steps on the matter, or fees and disbursements. This type of error also arises when there is confusion over whether the lawyer or client is responsible for do something during or after the matter (e.g. sending lease renewal notice to landlord, renewal of a registration or filing).
On top of being the most common malpractice errors, communications-related claims are also among the easiest to prevent. You can significantly reduce your exposure to this type of claim by doing the following things:
- Controlling client expectations from the very start of the matter: make sure your clients have realistic expectations about the timing, process, outcome and costs.
- Actively communicating with the client at all stages of the matter: make sure your client understands how the matter is moving along and that any delays that occur are explained.
- Creating a paper trail: In time entries, memos to file, and/or emails or reporting letters to your clients carefully document information provided by the client, instructions and advice, and confirm what work was done on a matter at each step along the way.
I will post more information on lawyer/client communication-related errors in future posts, including information on the specific types of communications errors LAWPRO sees in different areas of the law.