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What constitutes legal malpractice in Pennsylvania?

Broadly, legal malpractice occurs when your lawyer failed to perform in accordance with accepted legal standards and that failure caused you a financial loss. It's not legal malpractice simply to lose a case or even to make a major mistake. Not every bad outcome is the result of malpractice.

As a matter of fact, an attorney could theoretically make a number of very bad mistakes which resulted in a loss for a client and it might still not be considered legal malpractice. To prevail in a legal malpractice claim, the client has to prove that the loss would not have occurred without the attorney's errors.

To win a legal malpractice claim you would, for example, have to show that you would have won your legal case if the lawyer had not committed malpractice. This can be difficult, so it's important to have any potential claim evaluated by an attorney who handles legal malpractice cases.

That said, there are activities that attorneys may engage in which violate their legal duties toward clients regardless of whether the activities change the outcome of a legal matter. These breaches of ethics of professional responsibility are always serious but are sometimes resolved by bar associations rather than through litigation.

Examples of activities which may or may not rise to the level of malpractice include:

Breach of fiduciary duty. Lawyers are fiduciaries, meaning they are legally obligated to act in the interest of their clients as opposed to their own interests. They also have legal duties to act in good faith, to be candid and to be loyal to their clients. An attorney who uses a client's information to invest on their own behalf, for example, would be in violation of their fiduciary duty.

Comingling of funds. Whenever an attorney receives money from a client for any purpose, that money must be set up into its own account -- never mixed with the attorney's own funds or with other clients' funds. This keeps the principle, charges and interest clear. Comingling funds is typically considered a breach of fiduciary duty.

Conflicts of interest. Lawyers must never represent two or more clients with conflicting interests, or against the lawyer's own interest.

Neglect. Attorneys have a duty to perform legal work to accepted standards. They may fail to do so based on carelessness, indifference, willfulness or other reasons. This could be malpractice if, for example, the attorney fails to file papers in a timely fashion and a transaction therefore cannot be completed.

Again, the outcome of the situation matters, as do the realistic prospects of success. A legal malpractice attorney can evaluate your situation for whether you have a reasonable case against your former lawyer.

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