I previously wrote here about a $71 million jury verdict entered against a large Texas firm for estate planning malpractice even though this same jury found that the client had suffered zero economic damages; and here about a $1.2 million jury verdict against a large Florida firm for estate planning malpractice even though the plaintiff in that case alleged only $1 million in damages.

In both of these cases it appeared to me that the attorneys were first sued then fared very poorly at trial not because of the economic harm caused, but rather because the plaintiffs felt that the trust they had placed in their attorneys’ good faith had been betrayed.  In other words, non-economic factors were far more important than economic factors in determining the outcome of these cases.  A study of medical malpractice claims discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, supports my theory.

In Blink Gladwell explores the power of the trained mind to make split second decisions, the ability to think without thinking, or in other words using instinct.  The author describes this phenomenon as “thin slicing”: our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience. In other words, spontaneous decisions are often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones.  When it comes to client interactions with professionals, be it lawyers or doctors, if the client’s initial impression, hunch or instinct is that he or she isn’t being seriously listened to, or that he or she is being talked down to or isn’t being treated with respect, then the likelihood of a malpractice claim materializing somewhere down the line skyrockets.  Here’s an excerpt from Blink discussing this phenomenon in the context of medical malpractice claims:

Believe it or not, the risk of being sued for malpractice has very little to do with how many mistakes a doctor makes. Analyses of malpractice lawsuits show that there are highly skilled doctors who get sued a lot and doctors who make lots of mistakes and never get sued. At the same time, the overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. In other words, patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care and something else happens to them.

What is that something else? It’s how they were treated, on a personal level, by their doctor. What comes up again and again in malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored or treated poorly. “People just don’t sue doctors they like,” is how Alice Burkin, a leading medical malpractice lawyer, puts it. “In all the years I’ve been in this business, I’ve never had a potential client walk in and say, ‘I really like this doctor, and I feel terrible about doing it, but I want to sue him.’ We’ve had people come in saying they want to sue some specialist, and we’ll say, ‘We don’t think that doctor was negligent. We think it’s your primary care doctor who was at fault.’ And the client will say, ‘I don’t care what she did. I love her, and I’m not suing her.’”

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Malpractice sounds like one of those infinitely complicated and multidimensional problems. But in the end it comes down to a matter of respect, and the simplest way that respect is communicated is through tone of voice, and the most corrosive tone of voice that a doctor can assume is a dominant tone.

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Next time you meet a doctor, and you sit down in his office and he starts to talk, if you have the sense that he isn’t listening to you, that he’s talking down to you, and that he isn’t treating you with respect, listen to that feeling. You have thin-sliced him and found him wanting.

Lesson learned: don’t be a jerk

My experience has been that personal representatives or trustees or attorneys who treat estate beneficiaries dismissively or discourteously are exponentially more likely to have their fees challenged, accountings challenged, investment decisions challenged, distribution decisions challenged and generally end up in court over and over again until the beneficiaries resign themselves to the mistreatment or the professional resigns.  In other words, the best way to avoid getting sued if you are a personal representative or trustee or attorney is to be nice.  Nice trumps negligence any day of the week.  And just as importantly, being a jerk can get you sued, no matter how good you are at your job.