Peter Thompson comes from an impressive, unbroken line of San Diego lawyers dating back to the late 1800s. Today, he is making a career out of clients turning the tables on their attorneys: legal malpractice suits.
As late as 30 years ago, attorneys who sued other attorneys were given the scarlet letter treatment by their peers.
"Nobody admits to it," said one downtown San Diego attorney. "You don't want to be known as an attorney who sues other attorneys."
Now, most lawyers are willing to take on those cases, and Thompson is one of a handful in San Diego who have made a specialty out of it as the field has become more acceptable and cases more frequent.
"I don't think that lawyers are any more negligent now than they were 15 or 20 years ago," said Thompson. "The overall nature of the practice from my experience is that it has improved."
The nature of the law and how society views those who practice it have changed, Thompson and others said, thus opening up the field of legal malpractice.
The protectiveness among lawyers, like that among many other professionals, was a primary reason that legal malpractice suits were not more common.
"It was not something that anyone otherwise gainfully employed would be interested in doing to bring a malpractice case against. . . . I think we would say, a brother attorney," said Harry H. Schneider Jr., chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s committee on lawyers' professional liability, and an attorney with the Los Angeles-based firm of Perkins Coie.
Over the past 20 years, Schneider said, the definition of a malpractice claim has broadened extensively, beyond abuse of the lawyer-client relationship or incompetence.
For example, investors enraged over the failure of Lincoln Savings & Loan sued not only the head of the Irvine-based thrift, Charles Keating, but also the myriad firms that advised him, making the alleged fraud and failure possible.
Several law firms recently agreed to pay more than $55 million to settle the civil fraud and racketeering lawsuits related to the Lincoln scandal. Law firms, brokerages and accounting companies are also being held responsible in the bankruptcies of other savings and loans.
Those who work in the field of suing other lawyers say that, just like in any other profession, there are always going to be those who bungle the job, and so there will always be a need for their services.
"I will never be out of a job," Thompson said.
Thompson's family has had jobs in law here since the late 1800s. His great-grandfather, Adam, began practice in San Diego when there were fewer than a dozen lawyers in town.
Both Thompson's great-uncle, Renwick, and his grandfather, Gordon, were attorneys here. Gordon Thompson later became a Superior Court judge.
Gordon's two sons, Gordon Jr., and David, also became attorneys.
Gordon Jr. is a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego, and David now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Thompson said he enjoys helping police the profession in which his family has played a large role in San Diego.
"I'm fairly well-known in the legal community for what I do," Thompson said. "Almost 100% of my referrals are from other lawyers."
As the number of lawyers in the country have increased, Thompson said, so have the number of negligent or incompetent attorneys.
Each legal malpractice case is like two cases in one. In order to win such a case in trial, lawyers must show not only that the attorney defendant was negligent or incompetent, but that the case that was allegedly bungled could have been won in the first place.
That often means finding another lawyer in that field willing to testify against the attorney defendant, a task that sometimes means going out of the county.
"The most difficult is family law," said Dan Stanford, a San Diego attorney whose sole work is legal malpractice. "Most family-law lawyers belong to a small, close-knit group of attorneys that will, by and large, not testify against each other."
But Stanford and others say they spend as much time trying to persuade people not to sue their lawyers as they do prosecuting attorneys.
"There are many clients who are just unhappy, but who do not have cases rising to the level of legal malpractice or abuse of the process," Stanford said.
Those cases tend to be ones where a suit actually went to trial and the case was lost, often leaving behind angry clients.
The No. 1 cause of legal malpractice cases, Stanford said, is greed.
"Legal malpractice occurs when lawyers accept either too many cases or cases outside of their area or beyond their ability," Stanford said.
Thompson, like others, works both sides of the legal malpractice field, defending attorneys accused of botching a case as well as prosecuting them. Just as doctors sometimes make for meddlesome patients, attorneys can be difficult clients.