To Err is Human: When Must a Lawyer Disclose an Error to a Client?

On July 17, 2015, the North Carolina State Bar Ethics Committee (“Committee”) issued a 2015 Formal Ethics Opinion 4, discussing when it is appropriate for an attorney to disclose potential malpractice to a client.

The opinion begins with an explanation of the distinction between professional malpractice and professional misconduct, the former being a lawyer’s error under the applicable standard of care, which could subject the lawyer to civil liability. The North Carolina Committee acknowledges that even a generally competent lawyer may make a mistake and then proceeds to analyze the responsibilities that ensue.

Relying on analysis from a Colorado Ethics Opinion and a New York State Ethics Opinion, the North Carolina Committee advises that the decision to disclose an error to a client is governed by an attorney’s duty of communication pursuant to Rule 1.4. The obligation of disclosure of an error depends upon where it falls on the spectrum of possible errors as well as the circumstances under which the error is discovered. With respect to the spectrum, errors range from those that are material and clearly prejudice the client’s interests, which should always be reported, to those that are easily corrected or negligible and do not need to be revealed to the client.

A mistake that falls within the grey area of the spectrum must be examined in terms of the attorney’s duty to keep the client reasonably informed about his legal matter. For example, if the error will result in financial loss to the client, substantial delay in achieving the client’s goals, or a significant disadvantage to the client’s legal position, the error must be disclosed. When in doubt about the duty to disclose, the Committee advises that it is best that an attorney err on the side of disclosure.

After making the decision to disclose, an attorney may retain representation of the client unless there is a Rule 1.7 conflict of interest issue. When disclosing the error to a client, the lawyer must candidly explain the important facts surrounding the error, including the circumstances under which it occurred and its effect on the lawyer’s continued representation of the client. The lawyer must not advise the client about a potential malpractice claim, but the lawyer can recommend that the client seek independent legal advice.

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