On the Defense: When Malpractice Comes Calling
By Carol Waldhauser
Stuart C. Doe, Esq., was experiencing an unusually calm morning before leaving for circuit court. But Stuart's peace would not last. When he saw a man walking towards him, he first assumed it was a sales call or a walk-in client. But he was wrong. It was a private process server, who placed a complaint in his hand. Stuart was a defendant in a $300,000 malpractice suit.
The feelings such suits produce can be on a par with a divorce or a major illness. Even if the lawyer rendered faultless legal advice, fear and anger are common responses. So it's important to recognize that physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions are normal. It's not unusual to suffer physical ailments, such as a tight neck and shoulders, pounding heart, chest pains, headaches, high blood pressure, upset stomach, fatigue, cold or sweaty hands, eyestrain, and excessive sweating. Or emotional troubles, such as depression, anger, irritation, low self-esteem, apathy, impatience, forgetfulness, paranoia. Behavioral changes are also normal, such as compulsive overeating, hair-twisting, increase in smoking/drinking, changes in sleep, reckless driving, forgetfulness, drug use, and neglecting family and friends.
Managing the stress requires positive coping skills. First, keep clam, keep events in perspective, and remember:
- Despite the best preventive measures, litigation may occur.
- Give yourself an attitude adjustment - turn your focus away from the problem and look for the small things for which you can be grateful.
- Plan for tomorrow, but stay in today. Don't worry needlessly.
- Turn the problem over to your malpractice carrier, your attorney, and your higher power. Do what you can; then let it go!
Also, use self-dialogue and ask yourself: What can I learn from this experience? What options do I have for support? What is the worse possible outcome? What advice would I give to a peer in this situation?
Finally, don't be afraid to seek counseling. It's not a sign of weakness. In fact, it's often the only path to truly accepting stressful events.
Unfortunately, Stuart remained "clueless" and went to trial an emotional and physical mess. Worse yet, he was found negligent. Had Stuart employed coping tools, he might have endured the pressure and learned from the experience. Even when the lawyer becomes the defendant, it's possible to maintain the serenity and stamina needed to bounce back from a professional liability suit both professionally and personally.