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Defending their own legal malpractice suit is not the most edifying way for a lawyer to spend his or her time. Christopher Hoge is a DC lawyer who spends a lot of time prosecuting legal malpratice suits. That niche probably doesn’t earn him the Mr Nice Guy award with many colleagues, but love him or hate him, Hoge does have some insight into what gets lawyers into trouble.

He has been practicing since 1975 and was elected as president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia from 1998-1999. His other areas of practice include criminal law, civil litigation and professional negligence.

What percentage of your practice is devoted to suing lawyers?

I’d say at this point, probably 30 or 40 percent of my practice is devoted to representing plaintiffs in legal malpractice cases. It’s a little hard to be exact about that, because I have a lot of cases.

What are some of the more reoccurring complaints that get lawyers into trouble?

What gets lawyers in trouble with clients is not necessarily what gets the lawyers into trouble with me. What gets the lawyers into trouble with the client is not communicating with the client, not returning phone calls, blowing them off when they ask questions about their cases, being arrogant. The other thing that will get me a client is if they feel like a lawyer has overcharged them, and the lawyer sues them for a fee. Nothing will get a client into my office faster than if they got sued for a fee by a lawyer that they don’t think did a good job.

But that’s not going to be enough for me to take the case. As much as I think it’s terrible that a lawyer doesn’t return phone calls, or a lawyer doesn’t give information about the case to a client, that’s not legal malpractice. What I’m looking for is: Was there a good case there to begin with, and did the case get blown because the lawyer didn’t do his or her job?

What, then, are some of the things that lawyers may want to keep in mind to avoid legal trouble?

Number one, it’s really important to give your client the idea that you really care about their case and that this is not just a way for you to make money off of them, but that you really are concerned and that you are really trying to help them and to give them value for the fees that they are being charged.

If a client really believes in you and you are truly committed to working with a client and to solve a problem – whether it’s a criminal problem, an injury problem, a divorce problem, a person who’s died and you need to probate the estate problem – whatever problem it is, that client wants to think that they’re not just pouring money out and they’ve got nothing to show for it, but they’ve got somebody who’s on their side, who is fighting on their behalf to come up with the best possible solution to the problem for a reasonable fee. What will get the client to me is a belief that the lawyer is more concerned about their own fee and their own success in the profession rather than helping the client to solve the problem. That’s what’s probably the most important.

I think the second most important in terms of what happens if you do get sued is to be aware that all the documents and all the notes that you make are part of the record that will be discovered.

Can you suggest ways for lawyers to be a bit more prepared for their records to be scrutinized?

I think people need to take many more notes than they do. I know I take a huge number of notes. Every time I’m on the phone with somebody, I write down the date, who I’m talking to, the beginning time, the ending time, and a description of what we discussed. I don’t have a particularly good memory, and if someone asked me, ‘did you talk to a client John Brown last April 16 about his accident case?’ There would be no way in the world I could remember that without finding my notes on the subject. But I can guarantee you that if I talked to John Brown last April 16 about his accident, I’d be able to look in his file, I’d be able to find a note, and I’d be able to tell you pretty much what we talked about and how long we spent discussing it. So, number one, it’s important to keep notes. It’s a good way of organizing yourself and making sure you’re staying on top of things.

Secondly, it’s a good way that, if you do get sued, and you’re in a deposition and somebody’s asking you why you did or didn’t do something, you’d be able to refer to those notes and give a good precise answer, whereas without the notes, you wouldn’t be able to do that.

Number three is calendaring. We are a deadline business. The obvious deadline that is of most concern is the statute of limitations, but there are plenty of other deadlines that people miss: deadlines to file motions; deadlines to take discovery; deadlines to file appeals. The reason people miss those deadlines is because they don’t write those deadlines down on their calendars, and even if they have it in their calendars, they don’t always look at their calendars. I’ve had times where I’ve had dates staring me in the face and I just don’t even look at it. I just forget to. But you have to look.

You’ve got to be disciplined about that – disciplined and organized. I think a lot of people make mistakes because they’re not organized. They keep putting things to the back of their desk, maybe they don’t put a piece of paper in the right file, and they don’t have an action to-do list, and that piece of paper sits at the bottom of the pile, and by the time it comes up for air, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Missed deadlines I think, statistically, is the largest area where mistakes are made.

How important is it to talk to colleagues when a lawyer is handling a difficult case?

I think it’s real important. I know it’s real helpful to me. The call I just got has to do with a situation I’ve never had before.

It’s a psychiatric malpractice case. It’s a strong case where the person was given the wrong kind of medication and all sorts of horrible things happened to him. He sued his psychiatrist, and then what happened was the doctor’s insurance company has gone into bankruptcy. The issue is, what do we do now because the doctor’s insurance company is not paying for the lawyer to defend the doctor. I’ve been practicing 29 years. I’ve never had that happen.

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