How Do You Prove Financial Harm in Legal Malpractice?

What Georgia law says, and how it might impact your case

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 4, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Linley Jones

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When you hire a lawyer, it is reasonable to expect a high level of professional representation. Unfortunately, that does not always occur.

For a number of different reasons, a lawyer may fail to provide satisfactory services. If you suffered damages because of legal malpractice, you can hold your former lawyer accountable.

As described by the Georgia Bar Association, legal malpractice is negligence on the part of an attorney or a law firm that causes financial harm to their client.

Below, you will find a more comprehensive explanation of what you need to prove to bring a successful legal malpractice claim in Georgia.

Legal Malpractice Cases in Georgia: Understanding the Required Elements

No attorney can guarantee specific results. You cannot hold a lawyer or law firm liable for professional malpractice simply because you were unhappy with their services or the outcome of your case. To prevail in a legal malpractice claim, a plaintiff must prove that their attorney violated their professional duties under Georgia law.

There are three basic elements of a legal malpractice claim in Georgia:

  1. An attorney-client relationship was formed
  2. The attorney failed to exercise proper care, skill, or diligence
  3. The attorney’s negligence caused actual financial harm to their client

Without financial harm, a legal malpractice claim cannot be sustained.

“There are many bad acts of lawyers that are punishable by the State Bar as violations of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, but a client can only collect money damages if they sustained money damages,” says Linley Jones, a professional liability attorney in Atlanta.

For example, imagine that a lawyer missed an important filing deadline in your underlying case. As a direct result, your claim is time-barred and dismissed. There is little doubt that this lawyer failed to exercise proper care, skill, and diligence.

That being said, you will only be able to hold the negligent lawyer liable for professional malpractice if you can prove that the missed deadline caused financial harm (such as financial loss). If your claim was wholly frivolous, there may not have been actual financial harm.

“I have handled hundreds of legal malpractice actions, and they vary broadly and can arise from all different practice areas,” Jones adds. “A recent memorable case which resulted in a seven-figure jury trial verdict involved an immigration lawyer who forged signatures on immigration paperwork and caused the client very significant financial and career harm.”

There are many bad acts of lawyers that are punishable by the State Bar as violations of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, but a client can only collect money damages if they sustained money damages.

Linley Jones

Causation and Legal Malpractice in Georgia

Once you have established that an attorney-client relationship existed and that the attorney was negligent, you should focus on proving financial harm.

Establishing damages in a legal malpractice claim can be quite challenging. You have to prove that you would have gotten a better outcome in your case if you were represented by a competent lawyer of ordinary competence in similar circumstances. In a Georgia professional malpractice claim, damages are generally controlled by a legal theory known as the case-within-a-case standard.

In effect, it means that the plaintiff must prove that but for their lawyer’s negligence, they would have gotten a more favorable verdict, judgment, or settlement. It is a relatively narrow standard—meaning Georgia does not award malpractice damages based on the mere probability that a better outcome was possible.

Instead, a plaintiff in a malpractice suit must prove that they suffered tangible financial harm because their result was worse than what should have happened. If you have any specific questions or concerns about your rights, an experienced Georgia professional liability attorney can help.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of professional liability and legal malpractice, or reach out to a legal malpractice attorney for legal advice.

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