By David L. Duff of Duff & Kronfeld, P.C. posted in About the Law on Tuesday, February 20, 2018.
In Virginia, a lawsuit brought by a client against his or her former attorney for negligence (malpractice) in the handling of a particular legal matter, is regarded as being a breach of the contract of employment created between the lawyer and the client. It is the existence of such a contract that creates the obligation on the part of the attorney to provide legal services to the client that meet the prevailing standard of care. Absent a contract of employment, an attorney owes no such duty to any prospective client.
The contract whereby a client hires an attorney for representation on a particular legal matter can be either written or completely verbal. This distinction is HUGELY important in determining the statute of limitations within which a suit must be filed for the attorney’s malpractice; and after which the damaged client will be forever barred from obtaining compensation.
Most attorneys use written fee agreements when being hired to provide legal services. Such agreements commonly define the scope of services to be provided by the attorney; disclose the billing rates of all persons who are likely to work on the particular legal matter; specifies any advance retainer payment that may be required from the client; and, describe the general billing procedures used by the attorney.
If such a written fee agreement exists between the client and his/her chosen attorney, then the statute of limitations for filing a malpractice suit against that attorney is five (5) years from the date that the attorney ended representation. This means that a client who lost monies as the result of his or her attorney’s negligence, must resolve the matter, whether by settlement or the filing of a lawsuit against the lawyer, within a 5-year period of time. A failure to meet this 5-year deadline means that any claim of legal malpractice is forever lost.
Clients will occasionally hire attorneys for some legal issue based solely on a verbal understanding of what is to be done, and how payment is to be made. Such verbal understanding constitutes an “oral contract” of employment, which, then, creates the requirement that the attorney provide legal services that meet the prevailing standard of care.
With an oral contract of employment, however, the statute of limitations shortens to three (3) years. Thus, a damaged client who has hired his or her attorney merely through an oral contract, with no written terms of the employment, must resolve any legal malpractice claim against the lawyer within a 3-year timeframe, stating on the date that the attorney completed the task for which he/she was hired.
If you have questions about issues pertaining to your lawyer’s legal representation of you, please contact Duff & Kronfeld, P.C. at (703) 591-7475 for a complimentary, 30-minute telephone consultation.