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Law School Case Brief

Smith v. Lewis - 13 Cal. 3d 349, 118 Cal. Rptr. 621, 530 P.2d 589 (1975)


An attorney does not ordinarily guarantee the soundness of his opinions and, accordingly, is not liable for every mistake he may make in his practice. He is expected, however, to possess knowledge of those plain and elementary principles of law which are commonly known by well informed attorneys, and to discover those additional rules of law which, although not commonly known, may readily be found by standard research techniques. If the law on a particular subject is doubtful or debatable, an attorney will not be held responsible for failing to anticipate the manner in which the uncertainty will be resolved. But even with respect to an unsettled area of the law, an attorney assumes an obligation to his client to undertake reasonable research in an effort to ascertain relevant legal principles and to make an informed decision as to a course of conduct based upon an intelligent assessment of the problem.


The client filed a legal malpractice action against her attorney, alleging that he negligently failed to assert her community interest in her husband's retirement benefits in an underlying divorce action. The trial court found in favor of the client. On appeal, the attorney rested his defense on the proposition that an attorney is not liable for giving mistaken advice as to a matter upon which well-informed lawyers in his community entertain reasonable doubts. He contended that at the time of the dissolution proceedings, the law defining the character of retirements benefits was uncertain.


Was the attorney correct when he pleaded that the characterization of the retirement benefits was unclear?




The court rejected the attorney's contention, finding that the state retirement benefits were community property according to authority on the law as it appeared at the time the attorney represented his client and should have been claimed as such. As to the federal retirement benefits, the court noted that the record documented the attorney's failure to conduct any reasonable research into its proper characterization under community property. The court did find that it was error to admit a declaration filed by the attorney to amend the divorce decree to include the retirement benefits as community property, however, it noted that the error was not prejudicial. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment.

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