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When is “Zealous Advocacy” Legal Malpractice?


Lawyers have a legal duty to represent their clients “zealously” and competently.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “Zealous” as “marked by fervent partisanship for a person, a cause, or an ideal.” The Cambridge online dictionary says it means “enthusiastic and eager.” Changed to a noun, the word becomes “zealot,” which normally refers to a person whose pursuit of a goal or belief is absolute and uncompromising.

But is that truly the duty imposed on a lawyer?

Yes … and no.

Once a lawyer agrees to represent a client, the lawyer does have the duty to represent that client zealously … within the bounds of the law. In other words, a lawyer can use only legally permitted means to further the client’s case. A lawyer is not allowed to break the law, or to abuse the meaning and intent of the law, or to violate legal procedures.

Lawyers also have a legal duty to obey the ethics rules that govern lawyers’ conduct, both inside and outside of court. In fact, some of a lawyer’s own legal rights– for example, the right to freedom of speech–are limited when representing clients.


Here’s a short list of just some of the things a lawyer cannot legally do:

  • A lawyer cannot lie to the a court or other tribunal (either knowingly or in situations where the lawyer should have known the truth)
  • A lawyer cannot use an “artifice” (including misleading tactics) to fool or mislead a judge or jury
  • A lawyer cannot (knowingly) offer false evidence, or assist a witness in doing so
  • A lawyer cannot suppress or destroy evidence
  • A lawyer cannot represent a client in a case where the lawyer is or will be a necessary witness at trial (with some exceptions)

Lawyers who do any of these things, or engage in other prohibited acts (or omissions) may face a number of consequences. A court can impose sanctions (usually a fine, but also including jail time, where appropriate) on a lawyer who acts in unethical or illegal ways. Lawyers may be subject to sanctions from the Bar Association–including fines, suspension of the right to practice law, and (in egregious cases) disbarment (loss of the lawyer’s license, which means the lawyer can no longer practice law).

Lawyers who breach their legal or ethical duties also may be liable for malpractice (professional negligence), and may be required to pay compensation for the damages the lawyer’s actions (or failures to act) caused to clients or other third parties.

If you think a lawyer broke one or more of these rules, or breached another legal duty owed to you, contact an experienced attorney promptly for an evaluation of your legal rights. You may lose your right to bring a claim–even if the lawyer did cause you harm–if you delay too long. Not every mistake a lawyer makes is legal malpractice, but knowing whether or not a lawyer’s actions are malpractice can be tricky. Don’t try to make that evaluation on your own.


Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR OR ROSS LAW AND ANY PERSON. Your legal rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal rights or claims. Consult an experienced attorney promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, potential damages, and the various legal rights and options available to you.

You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Most legal claims (and defenses), as well as legal and court procedures, are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your individual rights and claims.

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