In theory, a law firm is responsible for all the actions (and omissions) of all its lawyers, all its staff, and even its temps and contract staff (lawyers, paralegals, or whatever). And, also in theory, the client is bound by the law firm’s actions on its behalf, with rare exceptions. Even if everyone knows that mistakes can be made, including errors in supervising staff or miscommunications, the implications of allowing a client to distance itself from its law firm or allowing law firms to distance themselves from their lawyers and other staff could lead to chaos: The court, opponents, and others wouldn’t be able to rely on anything they said, did, or didn’t do if they could just blame it on someone they are supposed to supervise. Basically, the legal system has to treat these “mistakes” as binding or we wouldn’t be able to rely on anything ever being “final,” especially in those situations where someone pleads guilty or admits some important fact without recognizing the repercussions until later.
If the lawyer makes a serious enough mistake, the client’s remedy is to sue for malpractice or perhaps file a bar complaint (though that rarely helps the client). Within the law firm, the rule is that more senior lawyers are supposed to supervise everyone below them, right on down the chain of command to the staff, temps, whatever. Most firms carry legal malpractice insurance to cover some of this, but it gets complicated with multiple law firms for the same client.
All this works fairly predictably for the most part, until you get to sanctions, like the infamous “Rule 11″ sanctions in federal court or discovery sanctions — anything that can be used as a cudgel against an opponent, including opposing counsel. Rule 11 gives the court authority to sanction the client, or the lawyer, or both, which means it’s a great way to distract attention from the merits and mess with the lawyer-client relationship, e.g., by letting the lawyer blame the client. Rule 11 is supposed to discourage inappropriate behavior in litigation by attaching a price tag for playing out of bounds. Of course, it didn’t take long for the lawyers Rule 11 was supposed to curb to turn it around into just another weapon to abuse. Continue reading