One of the biggest challenges professionals face is when their very livelihood is threatened by litigation alleging professional malpractice. Although the risk of litigation is inherent to many professions, there are a variety of strategies which, if implemented appropriately, can help mitigate that risk.
Fortunately, many of these practical steps can be taken by professionals at the outset of a project to prevent problems from arising at a later date. While the following tactics won’t prevent every potential problem, their utilization can reduce the risk of finding yourself – and your career – in a compromising position.
1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Be aware of the type of project for which you are assuming responsibility. It’s one thing to challenge yourself and tackle large, complex projects; that’s how we grow as professionals. At the same time, projects with which you have some familiarity and experience are less likely to lead you into a situation that falls outside of your professional comfort zone, and which could therefore expose you to professional liability. This applies to everyone from engineers and architects, from attorneys to accountants. When offered a project, consider its size and scope in relation to your own expertise and experience, and if it’s beyond what you’re used to taking on, give it a bit more scrutiny before binding yourself to it.
2. Stranger danger
Professionals regularly work with individuals with whom they have not had any previous experience in order to grow their businesses. Even when dealing with new clients, however, a little research can go a long way. In such a situation, it is often advisable to gather some opinions on the potential client, or to run a search of public records to see if they have a history of litigiousness. If no one else could make this person happy enough not to sue, chances are you won’t, either.
3. Draw the line
If you are working with other professionals on a task, make sure to set out specific responsibilities, and if possible, to outline those responsibilities in writing to reduce risk. Always make sure that each party is fully aware of who is responsible for what area of the project. This practice prevents items from being overlooked, activities from being duplicated, and actions from beingly wrongly taken. In the event something does go wrong, you always want to be able to know who is responsible.
4. Too many cooks spoil the broth
While it is a good idea to get more than one set of eyes on a project prior to its completion — a fresh look may reveal mistakes that have gone unnoticed — it is also important not to have too many people involved with a project. The tighter the team, the less opportunity for errors.
5. Honesty is the best policy
It is often difficult to own up to your mistakes, because you feel it might diminish your professional ability in the eyes of the client. However, you generally are not liable for mistakes unless the party who would be hurt by them decides to hold you accountable in some fashion. Because the client will eventually find out about the problem, you should always point out the issue and work to correct it from the outset; a forthright conversation often allows problems to be fixed before they snowball. Quite simply, remaining professional and admitting error reduces the likelihood that you will be sued, since individuals are frankly less likely to sue someone they like and respect. Work to preserve that relationship, and you will benefit.
While these tips are not foolproof, they can go a long way toward minimizing your professional risk and professional liability. When all else fails, it is a good decision to seek advice from an experienced attorney who is well-versed in handling claims of professional liability defense.