Friday, March 11, 2011

Should experts in legal malpractice cases be limited to practicing lawyers? -- UPDATED

The Legal Malpractice law review blog is reporting on a recent case from Georgia that holds that expert witnesses in a legal malpractice case must be practicing lawyers. The court apparently ruled the expert in question was not qualified because he did not (1) represent entities or individuals in court; (2) draft or file pleadings in judicial proceedings; or (3) prepare the type of documents or perform the legal tasks at issue in the litigation. Here is the link to the story. The case is called Wilson v. McNeely.

The ruling in the case, however, is not as broad as the cited report makes it to be. The decision is based on a Georgia statute that states that the testimony of an expert “shall be admissible only if, at the time the act or omission is alleged to have occurred, such expert [w]as licensed by an appropriate regulatory agency to practice his or her profession in the state in which such expert was practicing or teaching in the profession at such time [.]” In the case, the court found that the expert in question was not practicing law at the time of the alleged malpractice.

When I read the report by the legal malpractice law review blog, I thought the case had held that there was a strict rule banning non-practicing lawyers from serving as experts. For this reason, I argued that this was a bad decision. I argued that I did not think that a strict rule would be a good idea because it would preclude the use of testimony from knowledgeable people who could englighten the court and jury even if they did not practice. For that reason I argued the better approach would be to rule on the matter on a case by case basis.

Evidently, the text of the statute does not preclude academics from testifying, so my initial objection about the case was unnecessary.

I do think the text of the statute is peculiar in other ways, though. Why limit the expert to someone who was practicing at the time of the conduct? Couldn't someone who was admitted later have an expert opinion on the matter? Also, the statute requires that the practicing lawyer be admitted in the state where the conduct happens, but seems to say an academic can be based anywhere. Why the distinction? Again, I think the effect of these kinds of details should go to credibility rather than to admissibility, or, at least, should be dealt with on a case by case basis.