Don’t Take Cases Outside Your ‘Wheelhouse’

March 14, 2024

Steve Schwartz

By Steven H. Schwartz
As published in the December 2023 edition of Missouri Lawyers Weekly

Failure to know the law is a common cause of malpractice suits. It may seem obvious, but lawyers make mistakes when they handle matters without sufficient familiarity with the area of law they are handling. This most often happens when lawyers take cases outside of their regular areas of practice.

Because researching the law with books is now an outdated method of performing legal research, it is critical that all lawyers have access to a reliable online legal research provider. Lawyers who are still using hardcover books to perform legal research are at a disadvantage and may not find the most relevant case law compared to someone using an online searchable database. Online research can be expensive, but it must be considered part of a lawyer’s or firm’s regular overhead budget.

Lawyers set themselves up for legal malpractice claims when they take on matters that they have no experience handling, and they have no one helping them who has that experience either. It is best to avoid taking on cases that are far removed from your regular practice areas, because you will increase the chances of making a mistake and getting sued if there is a bad result.

If you want to take on a case to learn a new field of law, it is best to associate with a lawyer who is experienced in that area of law to assist you and act as your backup. If this means you have to share your fee with the other lawyer, it will probably be a worthwhile investment because, once you learn the new area of law, you may be able to take on similar cases in the future without help.

We have defended legal malpractice cases when a lawyer was sued after they took on a case in an area for which they had no experience, and no help from someone with experience. The lawyer made a mistake that resulted from the lawyer’s lack of experience in the field of law.  This kind of mistake is predictable and avoidable. Invariably, lawyers we defended in this situation very much regretted handling a matter that they were not qualified to handle. They learned a lesson the hard way.

If you take on a matter in an area with which you are not familiar, and you have the proper support of a lawyer who has the proper experience in that area, you are able to provide better service to your client and, at the same time, have the confidence your chances of committing malpractice will be greatly reduced.

In sum, two of the best ways to avoid malpractice: handle only matters for which you are experienced and competent; and stay familiar with the law in the areas of law for which you are practicing.

Steven Schwartz is a principal at Brown & James in St. Louis who has defended lawyers in legal malpractice cases, malicious prosecution cases and ethics complaints for more than 30 years. He can be reached at sschwartz@bjpc.com. The views expressed in this article are not intended to be taken as legal advice.