Legal Malpractice is an attorney’s failure to use minimally adequate levels of care, skill or diligence in the performance of representation of the client, causing harm. In New York, attorney malpractice is defined as a deviation or departure from good and accepted legal practice, where the client has been proximately damaged by that deviation, but for which, there would have been a different, better or more positive outcome and which caused ascertainable damages.
The first element of a relationship between the client and the professional is that there was a contractual relationship between the attorney and the client. An actual relationship is necessary. The cases often set forth that a “subjective belief” that the attorney was representing them is insufficient. The second element, deviation, is shown by evidence, not necessarily expert, which shows that the acts of the professional fell so below the good and accepted practice of law in New York, that a jury would be permitted to find that the acts below standard.
Expert testimony is necessary when the deviation is subtle; an example could be the failure to supply an affidavit of merits to restore a case marked off calendar, the failure to respond to a CPLR 3216 notice, or failures in response to a motion for summary judgment. Expert testimony is not always necessary however. None is needed to demonstrate the deviation in failing to file within the statute of limitations. Bad outcome do not necessarily equal a deviation. Furthermore, questions of judgment of strategic choice cannot serve as the basis of malpractice. An attorney is permitted the reasonable choice of strategy, if supported by acceptable reasoning. The strategic choice must be reasonable both objectively and subjectively. The difference between strategic choice and mistake are subtle, and create the most difficult cases.
The third element of proximate cause encompasses both the typical analysis that arises in all negligence litigation and the additional element of “but for.” The plaintiff must demonstrate not only that the deviation was a substantial cause of the poor outcome, but must additionally show that “but for” the deviation there would have been a different, better or more positive outcome. An example of this potential difficulty arises in an automobile accident. No matter how many deviations are shown, it may be that the maximum insurance for the other driver limits the recovery. If that is true, it will be impossible to show that “but for” the deviation, more than the policy limit was available and could have been recovered from the defendant.