When Lawyers Need Lawyers
Karen Goodman defends attorneys facing malpractice claims; Bill Gwire puts them in the hot seat
Published in 2015 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on June 29, 2015
Updated on July 7, 2015
No attorney wants to hear the words “legal malpractice.” But for those who practice professional-liability law, such charges provide opportunities to either right wrongs or fight accusations against fellow lawyers. In essence, it could be argued, they’re both about improving the profession.
The dollar amounts of these claims are on the rise, according to an Ames & Gough study. And common allegations range from “procrastination” to “clerical error” to “fraud,” according to an ABA committee report. Bottom line: A client feels wronged and wants compensation.
Karen Goodman has spent the past three decades defending lawyers and real estate brokers. A Sacramento native who works out of a three-attorney office, her original plan was to use her degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law in a career as a real estate developer.
Instead, she opted to practice real estate law. Goodman went to work for Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney, where she defended real estate brokers—and lawyers—who were hit with malpractice suits. Then in 2003, Goodman moved on to found her own firm, Goodman & Associates. The legal malpractice area of her business keeps growing.
On the opposite side of the aisle is Bill Gwire, who estimates that his process of selecting only the highest-quality cases means he takes only two of every 100 brought to his three-attorney Emeryville firm’s door each year.
The scrappy Brooklynite’s circuitous and serendipitous path to his current practice area included stints stationed in the Azores in an air-rescue and recovery unit, and teaching air rescue and recovery at Mountain Home Air Force Base in rural Idaho during the Vietnam War. He began his career doing general practice in San Mateo. It was the Loma Prieta earthquake that literally shook him out of his professional doldrums and led him to his current practice.
Pragmatic and direct, Goodman represents professionals who, for whatever reason, find themselves in a jam. They range from the wrongly accused to those who just made a mistake to serial offenders whose moral code accepts the occasional lawsuit as an occupational hazard.
“I deal with problems that can range from a nuisance lawsuit to some cases … where there’s been a very serious harm to the client, and it’s my objective to attempt to resolve those quickly before unnecessary costs are incurred,” she says. “Because of my knowledge of ethics, I’m able to pretty quickly figure out where the rubber meets the road.”
A past president of California Women Lawyers, Goodman has written extensively about ethics and the law. She has served on the state Bar’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, its Legal Malpractice Specialization Task Force, and its board of trustees. And last year, she chaired the California State Bar Discipline Standards committee.
Part of Goodman’s job is getting her attorney clients to face reality. “They tend to be in absolute denial,” she says. “Over time, provided I can get their confidence and trust, they typically move on to, ‘It’s in my best interests to unburden myself and try to get rid of this case so we can move on and get back to work.’
“But sometimes you just have unreasonable, difficult clients, or lawyers who’ve stretched themselves outside their comfort zone. And some are ethically impaired, morally compromised, or maybe have some other issues … that make it difficult for them to recognize that they may have made an error in judgment. They are the most difficult. But whatever the situation, you have to make a quick, candid evaluation of what needs to happen and try to resolve it.”
She believes, of course, that some clients are unjustly hit with malpractice suits. One attorney was accused of mishandling an employment case after his client refused a significant settlement offer in favor of going to trial. “Because of his skill set, he was able to secure a very substantial, very attractive offer pretrial that she rejected,” Goodman says. “She was not interested in—borrowing a sports analogy—a double; she wanted a home run.”
The attorney advised his client of the risks of trial and ultimately tried the case twice, but both juries decided in favor of the defendant. The client filed a malpractice claim, blaming her trial losses on her attorney, but Goodman won his case. “[The client] decided that she was, frankly, going to roll the dice and take the case to trial. He [had done] a good job,” she says. “I think she was never really interested in the lawyer’s counsel and didn’t appreciate the value of what he brought to her.”
Goodman keeps her eye on the goal: to get her clients through their cases quickly and calmly, and at a minimum of emotional and financial cost. This usually means settling a case before it goes to trial.
Gwire’s practice area may not be the one lawyers dreamed of as children watching Perry Mason or L.A. Law. He acknowledges that, in years past, some lawyers would refer to legal malpractice as a “bottom-feeder practice.”
But Gwire is passionate about his work. Forty-some years ago, he was a newbie lawyer from the mean streets when he got this advice from a veteran colleague: “You can’t take this stuff home with you.” He never forgot the advice, because to his ears it was outrageous.
“What he meant,” Gwire says, “was, ‘Don’t get emotionally involved in the case.’ I’ve never learned how to do that.”
Gwire says he’d been “seduced” into running the San Francisco office of an LA-based firm, where he was handling civil cases, representing mostly large businesses and high-net-worth individuals. He found himself growing dissatisfied. “A lot of times,” he says, “the more successful you get, the farther you get from what drives you.”
Then the earthquake. On Oct. 17, 1989, as his beloved San Francisco Giants were warming up for Game 3 of the World Series against the Oakland A’s, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit. Gwire took it as a sign that it was time to make some changes.
“In life, there are events that come together,” he says. “You need to be aware of them. The Loma Prieta earthquake was that sort of defining moment for me.”
So he set out to change things, which included opening a solo litigation firm in San Francisco that same year. The first malpractice case soon followed—another of the serendipitous events Gwire credits with shaping his career. A former client called to say he had a problem: He was dissolving a business partnership and going broke in the process. “He said, ‘I’m going to survive breaking up with my [business] partner, but I’m not going to survive my lawyers,’” recalls Gwire.
The client was spending $40,000 to $50,000 a month on lawyers’ fees, Gwire says. “It was clear to me that they were overcharging him,” he says, his voice rising. “No one had even begun to discuss settlement. That offended me.”
Gwire told his client’s lawyers to put the case into mediation. When the dust cleared, he says, the case settled and his client won back about $250,000 in fees. “He thought I walked on water,” Gwire recalls. “He started spreading the word in his professional world, and a few more cases came in to me. That’s when I thought, maybe there’s a niche here that needs to be filled.”
It was a niche that fit him well.
“I had skin in the game and wanted to improve [the] profession,” he says. “This was what I was looking for when I got into law school. I am a child of the ’60s, absolutely. Those years were really important years socially. People were involved and interested, and there were strong senses of right and wrong. I grew up in that era, and being on the side of right is really important to me. I want to wear the white hat.”
He’s currently handling a case in which a client trying to win an appeal for a jailed son gave her life savings—$25,000—to a lawyer who Gwire says neglected to tell her that the period for filing an appeal had expired.
Then there was the cancer patient who hired a lawyer to appeal a disability claim, only to find herself paying that lawyer “tens of thousands of dollars” in fees for what seemed to Gwire to be far less work than the number of hours billed.
“We wrote to the lawyer and said we don’t want money back, just [a] release from future payments. He said no, so we sued him. He had a viable legal claim that his agreement was enforceable; we were actually appealing to the morality of the situation.”
After a three-day trial, the judge agreed, declaring the original fee agreement unenforceable. Ultimately, Gwire says, his client recouped all her fees, even after her former attorney appealed. As for Gwire, it was a pro bono case, so he took no fee. There was a cake involved, however—baked by the grateful client.
As for Goodman, one thing that’s not part of her job, she says, is to judge. “It’s my job to defend them and get the matter resolved, hopefully quickly and without any long-term impact on them.”