Pete Werdesheim, Werdesheim Law Firm, Atlanta. John Disney/ALM

Switching from defense to plaintiffs work is common enough for personal injury and medical malpractice litigators. For legal malpractice lawyers? Not so much.

Nevertheless, after 12 years defending lawyers, accountants and other professionals as a partner at Carlock Copeland & Stair, Pete Werdesheim has done just that.

“Everybody needs a niche,” he said. “Most of my work when I was exclusively on the defense side was legal malpractice. … It’s how most people know me.”

Werdesheim, 40, said the chance to share office space with some old friends spurred his decision. He’s leased loft office space in the Old Fourth Ward overlooking the Beltline with Michael Geoffroy and Brian Burgoon, both solo practitioners handling personal injury and business disputes.

“When I left my prior firm I wanted to do something different—and this is different,” Werdesheim said. “I didn’t want to be in a Regis space or working from home in isolation.”

Werdesheim is still defending lawyers in complaints before the State Bar of Georgia and in a few lawsuits. For plaintiffs cases, he said about half the calls he’s received from prospective clients have been from outside Atlanta. “Understandably, in smaller legal communities, there is a reluctance to sue a fellow local attorney,” he explained, so lawyers will refer cases to Atlanta lawyers. He added that frequently the entire bench for a county’s circuit will recuse and call in a senior judge from another circuit for these cases.

That was the prevailing attitude in Atlanta until around 1980, he said, when Taylor Jones and Frank Beltran pioneered suing other lawyers for malpractice.

“It was a novel thing for a long time,” he said, and it’s still a very niche practice. Of the handful of Atlanta lawyers who handle plaintiffs-side legal malpractice, most learned from Beltran and Taylor, he said.

Werdesheim, instead, worked closely with Joe Kingma, one of the gurus on the defense side of professional liability claims, at Carlock Copeland. “I was afforded a lot of great opportunities there to work on big, complex cases and to learn from some terrific trial lawyers,” he said.

But now he wants to do his own thing. While the plaintiffs legal malpractice bar is a small club, Werdesheim sees some room in the marketplace. He said he’s been busy so far, and most of his cases have come from referrals from other lawyers—either from lawyers he’s represented in the past, former opposing counsel or other plaintiffs lawyers handling legal malpractice.

According to a 2016 ABA survey tracking legal malpractice claims, plaintiffs lawyers are sued most frequently, which Werdesheim said tracks with his experience.

There was an upsurge of claims against real estate lawyers amid failed real estate deals after the recession, which kept Carlock Copeland’s professional liability defense practice very busy until about 2013, Werdesheim said, but that’s subsided.

He said thecomplaints he’s encountered most often in his new practice involve drafting errors in contracts, such as an LLC operating agreement that dilutes a shareholder’s interest. Fee disputes are another common issue for unhappy clients, such as when a lawyer fails to provide a full accounting of a medical malpractice settlement.

“There’s more of that than I would have expected,” he said.

He’s also gotten several calls about plaintiffs lawyers evaluating someone’s case and then dropping it at the last minute, right before the statute expires, making it difficult to find another lawyer.

“Many litigators—lawyers in general—are really nonconfrontational people at core or are pleasers, so they have a hard time having frank discussions with clients about bad news—especially if they’ve spent a fair amount of time puffing up and making predictions about how great the case is,” he said.

A lot of lawyers who get sued are suffering from depression or substance abuse problems, Werdesheim added. “There can be any number of things that affect their capacity or ability to work. The difference with lawyers is they have an obligation to clients that the average business or sales guy doesn’t.”

“I’ve got some sympathy for impaired lawyers and lawyers going through difficult times,” he said. “I’ve defended a lot of them, and I’ve seen what they’ve gone through.”

BRIEFLY

Taylor English Duma has added three lawyers. Chris Wilson, who represents borrowers and lenders in financing transactions, joined as a partner from FisherBroyles, where he was managing partner for the Atlanta office. Jonathan Crumly, a construction lawyer, has joined as counsel, after serving as general counsel for LakePoint Sporting Community, a new development in Emerson, Georgia.


Tae-Seung Lee has joined the firm’s corporate practice as an associate, after earning a law degree from Emory University in 2015 and serving as a junior sales trader at Morgan Stanley. A former U.S. Army officer and fluent in Korean, Lee served as an interpreter in security talks on North Korean nuclear issues between Korea and U.S. Joint Staff, for which he won an Army Commendation Medal. He is also a professional boxer.


Drew Eckl & Farnham has also added lawyers: Julie Stewart as of counsel and Christopher Gates and Kaitlyn Hayden as associates, all in the workers’ compensation practice. Stewart joined from workers’ compensation defense firm Richter, Head, Shinall & White, Gates had worked for plaintiffs attorney Robert Pagniello’s firm, and Hayden had worked at another plaintiffs firm, Morrison & Hughes, in Marietta.


Kiyoaki “Kiyo” Kojima has joined Smith Gambrell & Russell as a partner from Barnes & Thornburg. A corporate lawyer, Kojima is heading a new Japanese practice for Smith Gambrell. Kojima, who was born in Japan and grew up in Southeast Asia, assists international companies in setting up U.S. subsidiaries. He also moonlights as a bassoonist and saxophonist around Atlanta and the Southeast, including for the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and the Charleston Symphony.


Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz has added litigator Michael Horner as of counsel in its Macon office. Horner joined from Macon plaintiffs firm Reynolds, Horne & Survant.


The Council of State Court Judges has made Guardian of Justice awards to Nathan Gaffney of Hall Booth Smith and Michael Terry of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore for their legal assistance in two wins at the Supreme Court of Georgia over the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees judicial conduct for the state’s judges. The court in November ordered the JQC to reconsider its Advisory Opinion 239 prohibiting Georgia judges from barring the public from their courtrooms except in rare circumstances, saying it overstepped its authority. Gaffney represented the council for that case and Terry represented it for another in May, where the court overruled the JQC on Advisory Opinion 241 saying judicial groups could not file amicus briefs in pending litigation. Georgia’s Code of Judicial Conduct generally prohibits full-time judges from filing individual amicus briefs.