At the top of the list of dreaded mistakes for any attorney is the failure to file a claim, notice, or lawsuit within the time prescribed by law. Inevitably, the client loses his or her right of action, and the entire cause is lost. Such a failure is “black and white” in the eyes of jurors, and disastrous for the client. Similarly, the failure to answer a claim, notice, or lawsuit on behalf of a client may result in forfeiture, loss of defense, or default judgment entered against a client, often fatal failures. A failure to appear in time to set aside a default judgment is equally serious. Unfortunately, courts do not consider that the error was made by the attorney and not the client. The client must sue the attorney for malpractice to recoup his or her loss.
Probably second to the above, in terms of occurrence and viability, is the failure to provide required notice. Such failures may include the failure to notify potential heirs at law of a probate matter, failure to provide notice to creditors of a pending action, failure to post public notice regarding a real property action, failure to appear in court, or failure to notify a client of an offer to settle the case, received from the opposing party. These matters generally constitute actionable malpractice if the client has suffered harm or damage as a result of the alleged failures.
Third in line is that group of failures which are serious but not always fatal to a client’s interest(s). These include such things as failure to file a certain motion in court, failure to name the right parties in a lawsuit (very serious if the time period for filing expires), failure to take or obtain certain discovery (e.g., documents or evidence), failure to object to the admission of certain evidence at trial (more serious), failure to raise certain issues or questions at depositions, public hearings, trials, arbitrations and mediations, etc.
Sometimes overlooked but nonetheless considered malpractice is the failure to communicate with a client and/or keep the client apprized of the status of the legal matter. However, such instances of malpractice are seldom “actionable” (because of impalpable damages) and are better addressed through a grievance process or letter of complaint.
The above instances of failures are not comprehensive and are intended only as representative by way of example. Not all occurrences of the above “failures” will result in actionable malpractice in all jurisdictions and under all factual scenarios.