The 3 elements of a breach of fiduciary duty in legal malpractice

Many professional relationships involve a fiduciary obligation on the part of one individual performing a service for another. The fiduciary obligation requires the person who is giving the service to act in the best interests of the client or give advice and recommendations in the best interest of the client. When the fiduciary acts in a way that hurts the client — and especially when it is done to benefit or enrich the service provider — a breach of fiduciary duty has likely occurred.

From the perspective of an attorney-client relationship, breach of fiduciary duty is a common issue that comes up in the litigation of a legal malpractice claim. Let’s take a look at the three most important elements required to establish that a breach of fiduciary duty has occurred between a lawyer and his or her client:

A clear duty was present: In a legal malpractice case that includes a breach of fiduciary duty, the plaintiff needs to show that the lawyer owed a “duty” to the client. This duty relates to the expectation of good faith and fair dealing, the duty to fully disclose information and the duty to be loyal to the client. The clearest way to establish that the lawyer owed a duty to his or her client is through the existence of a signed contract between the plaintiff and the lawyer. However, this may not always be required.

A breach of the fiduciary duty has occurred: The breach relates to the lawyer’s failure to fulfill fiduciary obligations to the plaintiff through actions or inactions. Perhaps the lawyer utilized his or her influence over the client to achieve a benefit for him- or herself.

The victim suffered damages: A breach or failure relating to fiduciary duties alone is not enough for a plaintiff to prevail in a legal action. The plaintiff also needs to show that the breach caused him or her to suffer damages. With proof of damages, the plaintiff will not have an actionable claim against one’s attorney.

Were you harmed by a lawyer’s fiduciary failures, malpractice or negligence? By learning more about the duties and obligations owed by an attorney to a client, you can better evaluate whether you can pursue a legal malpractice action in court.