The professional liability defense team at Parr Brown Gee & Loveless is made up of three highly experienced trial attorneys – Jonathan Hafen, Jenifer Tomchak and Mary Ann May. Together they represent local, regional and national law firms, as well as individual lawyers. In addition to legal malpractice defense, the team also defends accountants and other professionals in administrative proceedings, governmental and professional association investigations, class action lawsuits and other litigation.
“Unfortunately, many times when people don’t like the outcome of a case or transaction, they look around for someone to blame. Often, the easiest target is the lawyers,” says Jonathan Hafen. “When a former client threatens litigation or brings a lawsuit, it is oft en a lawyer’s worst nightmare. It brings us a great deal of satisfaction to resolve the situation as quickly and inexpensively as possible. We really feel like we offer an important service to the legal community.”
A Team of Lawyers’ Lawyers
Some of Utah’s leading law firms seek the services of these “lawyers’ lawyers” for their extensive trial experience and stellar track record in defending professions. As the general counsel of one of Utah’s largest firms, Paul Burke, put it, “I have great confidence in Parr Brown’s professional liability defense team and I trust them to represent my law partners and our firm. Parr Brown’s team understands lawyers and the reality that malpractice cases are multidimensional. They know that their clients want to resolve disputes efficiently but that they also need to protect their professional reputations. They are skilled strategists with an impressive record of winning cases with carefully crafted motions.”
Parr Brown’s professional liability defense team collectively has more than 40 years of legal experience. Hafen is AV-rated and his CV boasts a long list of other honors. Tomchak is the recipient of the 2016 Litigator’s Cup for the litigation section of the Utah State Bar; she has been recognized as one of Utah Business Magazine’s 30 Women to Watch and as a Super Lawyers Rising Star since 2008, among other recognitions. May has been listed as a Super Lawyers Rising Star for three years.
The attorneys have extensive litigation experience in a variety of practice areas, which adds significantly to their legal malpractice defense work. They also bring an in-depth understanding of the procedural mechanisms for the defense, resolution and dismissal of legal malpractice actions to the cases they handle. Their focus is always on excellence and how to do things in the best way possible, whether they are analyzing case strategy, interviewing witnesses, drafting pleadings, conducting depositions, or litigating in the courtroom. As attorneys themselves, the team brings an especially high degree of passion to successfully resolving lawsuits brought against their attorney clients. They never lose sight of how high the stakes are for attorneys who are facing the possibility of losing their reputations and their incomes.
“Having legal malpractice claims brought against you is a very traumatizing life event,” Jenifer Tomchak says. “To be able to resolve these cases for our attorney clients and have them be happy with the resolution is very rewarding.”
As rewarding as the cases are to resolve, they are also extremely interesting to defend.
“When litigation ends badly and a lawyer is sued over the result, the malpractice action is typically more complicated than most cases,” Hafen says. “The actions of the lawyer are judged under one set of laws, but the facts are generated from the first action, so we analyze in depth the ‘case within the case.’ We look at what the lawyers did and how they did it and measure those actions against what a reasonable lawyer in that practice area would have done under the circumstances. That added complexity makes it a more interesting practice area.”
Some cases are unrelated to litigation, and involve alleged ethical violations, such as conflicts of interest. “There are many ethical traps for the unwary,” adds Mary Ann May. “It is a unique perspective to work with a client in our own profession and understand their processes and practices in dealing with ethical issues and client relationship challenges. We see many firms work very hard to do everything the right way, but no matter how hard a firm tries, sometimes problems arise.”
“Just as we recommend that our clients in other businesses adopt wise policies and procedures to avoid litigation, lawyers should carefully craft and follow their policies and procedures because higher standards of conduct often apply to lawyers,” adds Hafen.
The Parr Brown team also counsels law firms to obtain the right type and amount of insurance coverage. “Law firms need to assess the maximum financial exposure they could face for the type and magnitude of the transactions and cases they handle, and then make sure their malpractice insurance goes well beyond that amount,” says Tomchak. “As firms contemplate various insurance options, they should carefully consider policy features such as deductibles, the right to appoint defense counsel of their choosing, and whether the policy limits are consumed by defense costs. No firm wants to face the prospect of a claim that could not only bankrupt a firm, but which could put a lawyer’s personal assets at risk.”
Cost-Effective and Efficient Approach
The team’s collaborative approach to cases focuses on efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Resolving cases quickly for the lowest possible price are primary objectives. To meet those objectives, they analyze each expected strategic step early in the case and work with their clients on which steps are worth the clients’ time and resources.
“We try to be thoughtful about staffing and strategy. In some of our high stakes cases with tough facts, we bring in our entire team. For more straightforward cases, we can effectively represent our clients in a more streamlined way,” Tomchak says.
“Another big benefit we have is being part of a large commercial firm with expertise in many areas of the law. If the underlying dispute involves complicated tax, real estate or securities issues, we have some of the best and brightest lawyers in those areas just down the hall. That is a great resource that benefits our clients,” adds Hafen.
The success of their approach is perhaps best exemplified in some of the team’s recent cases, which include multiple case dismissals on summary judgment and many favorable settlements.
“Sometimes it is clear that a lawyer has made a mistake. Even in those situations, perhaps especially in those situations, it is important that any settlement be reasonable and fair to the lawyer,” says Tomchak. In those cases, damages oft en become the focus. “Sometimes case analysis for mediation is just as important as preparing for trial. We do not want to see our clients pay a penny more than is reasonable and necessary to resolve a claim.”
Defending legal malpractice cases successfully results not only from the team’s legal expertise, but also because of the way the three attorneys work together. Their complementary working styles and strengths bring well-rounded knowledge and expertise to each case. Cases are staffed in a way that makes sense based on the different strengths each individual brings. The attorneys don’t work in silos – on smaller cases that do not require all three of the team members, they still collaborate. Believing that having as many educated perspectives as possible improves the outcome, the attorney-clients the team defends are also included in the collaborative process. “We represent very good lawyers who have lived the underlying case. They are a great resource not only for the facts and applicable law, but for the many strategy decisions to be made in every case,” says May.
“When we take a case, we gather all of the facts, sift through them, and build our case around what is the most important,” Tomchak adds. “We rely on our clients to help educate us and they are part of our team as the case proceeds. That process begins the first time we meet and continues through trial.”
“We really enjoy working with our clients and getting great results,” Hafen says. “As we earn our clients’ trust and confidence, word seems to spread, and we have an ever-growing opportunity to defend lawyers, accountants, and many other professionals in a variety of settings. Defending professionals is important and satisfying work. We genuinely enjoy what we do.”