The Connecticut Appellate Court has affirmed a judgment after a bench trial in favor of an attorney for unpaid legal fees from a former client and rejected the client’s counterclaim for legal malpractice. In O’Connell, Flaherty and Attmore, LLC v. Richter, an attorney brought a claim against his former client to recover unpaid legal fees related to the client’s divorce proceedings. The client then brought a counterclaim for legal malpractice, alleging that the attorney’s negligent conduct jeopardized her case. She specifically claimed that the attorney had failed to adequately conduct discovery of her former husband’s assets and that his threat to withdraw from the case also harmed her.
The client, who represented herself at trial, failed to call an expert witness to testify as to the appropriate standard of care for a lawyer and in what manner her attorney’s conduct had breached that standard. The trial court denied the client’s request for a continuance to permit her to obtain an expert, but did allow the former attorney to testify as to the proper standard of care. However, the trial court ruled in favor of the attorney, finding that the client had failed to establish each of the necessary elements of a legal malpractice claim.
The client then appealed, alleging that expert testimony was not necessary to prove her claim, and that alternatively, even if expert testimony was required, the attorney’s own testimony on that issue was sufficient to establish a breach. In Connecticut, expert testimony is normally needed to prove legal malpractice. However, in rare instances, the conduct so obviously breaches the standard of care that it would be clear even to a layperson. The appellate court ruled that the attorney’s conduct in this case was not such an obvious case, and therefore an expert was necessary to establish the proper standard of care. The appellate court also found that the attorney’s testimony did not demonstrate a breach of his duty, and therefore, the appellate court affirmed the lower court judgment.