When people discuss attorney malpractice, the focus is usually on the actions of individual practicing lawyers who have failed to maintain the professional standards required of those in the profession, thereby harming clients. But if a lawyer who is part of a law firm is not adhering to professional standards, partners and supervisory attorneys may have the ethical duty to stop the negligent or unprofessional behavior in order to protect the client’s interests and prevent malpractice.
For example, a recent Above the Law article describes a case in which a client sued its law firm for legal malpractice after their lawyer allegedly had missed an important filing deadline that hurt the client’s interests in a previous lawsuit. Reportedly, the lead lawyer on the original case had been talked to before about missing deadlines and his supervisory attorneys had discussed taking him off his cases to protect client interests but did not do so in the case in question.
In a situation like this, what are the duties of the supervising or managing lawyers in the firm related to professional oversight of colleagues and intervention in professional negligence or misconduct within the firm to protect clients?
Rule 4-5.1 of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) sheds light on this situation. Some of its provisions:
- Law firm partners and managing attorneys must make “reasonable efforts” to see that the firm has procedures and policies in place that give “reasonable assurance” that all lawyers will follow the ethical rules of the RPC.
- Supervisory attorneys must make “reasonable efforts to ensure” that lawyers they supervise will conform to the RPC’s ethical requirements.
- An attorney would be responsible for another lawyer’s RPC violation if the attorney ordered the violating conduct or ratified the unethical conduct.
- An attorney would also be responsible for another lawyer’s professional misconduct if the attorney is a partner, is at the same level of managerial authority in the firm as the lawyer in question or directly supervises that lawyer, and the attorney has knowledge of the unprofessional behavior and could have taken “reasonable remedial action” to avoid or mitigate the consequences.
If a party feels that their lawyer may have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, they can consult a legal malpractice attorney about potential legal remedies, including whether the previous lawyer’s law firm or other individual’s in that firm may be liable for harm the original lawyer’s actions may have caused.