Architecture is a profession where the stakes are high. If there’s a problem on a project that can’t be easily resolved, a lawsuit is likely.

For architects facing a lawsuit for the first time, the situation can be unnerving. It’s helpful to know what to do and when to do it ahead of time, before you end up being served with legal papers.

Here is a guide to the best practices to follow when you’ve been sued.

Step 1: Remain Calm

Try to keep things in perspective. Remember that while it may be unfamiliar to you as an architect, thousands of legal disputes are handled every day through litigation. The legal system has fixed processes in place to try to help parties resolve a dispute fairly and professionally. Plus with legal counsel, you will have help guiding you through the process to resolve the issue with the most favorable terms possible.

Keep in mind that facing a lawsuit does not negate all of the good work you and your firm have performed. In fact, a lawsuit is not even necessarily proof that you have made a mistake or done something wrong. At this stage, it simply means that there is a dispute. The most important thing is to acknowledge the situation and take appropriate action, not ignore it and hope it goes away.

Step 2: Contact Your Insurance

Reach out to your insurance provider as soon as possible. Architects and other design professionals all have professional liability protection for a reason and these insurance policies are designed for just such an occasion. But speed is key. Prompt claim reporting significantly cuts down on the cost and length of litigation, better protects businesses and minimizes the stress and worry a lawsuit can cause.

In fact, the best practice is to contact your insurance company any time you encounter a situation that has the potential to escalate into a claim, such as an accident, injury or discovery of a professional mistake. In other words, you don’t have to wait until you’re served papers. Lockton Affinity Architect + Engineer offers complementary pre-claim assistance that can even help prevent a lawsuit or minimize the damage if one results.

Step 3: Call Your Lawyer

Professional legal counsel is a must any time you’re facing civil litigation. In a professional negligence claim, insurance and legal help go hand in hand. Your insurer should confirm that the incident in question is covered and inform you of your available policy benefits. Professional Liability Insurance can pay for legal consultation, lawyer fees, court costs and judgements or settlements, according to the terms of your policy. Your insurance representative can put you in contact with a trusted law firm experienced in handling the kind of claim you are facing.

Speed matters here, too. Engaging legal counsel establishes attorney-client privilege allowing you to discuss all aspects of the case against you and receive professional advice from an attorney experienced in architecture claims. Be prepared for your legal counsel to request to view specific documents and interview other individuals at your firm who contributed to work on the project.

Step 4: Issue a Legal Hold

One of the first things your attorney will counsel you to do is to issue a legal or litigation hold memo internally at your architecture firm. A legal hold memo serves several important purposes. It informs affected members of firm about the existence of the legal claim and the allegations made with it. Most importantly, a legal hold directs recipients to retain all documents, communications and information that could be relevant to the claim. The hold will supersede your firm’s regular document retention and destruction policy.

A legal hold is a simple yet important action to take immediately when you are sued. Courts view the deletion or destruction of a document differently depending on whether a proper hold memorandum was issued. The absence of a requested document is viewed more unfavorably if a hold was not issued. A hold helps ensure documents that can help your case are still available months or years later, when under normal circumstances they may have been lost.

Step 5: Gather Your Documents

Lawsuits are often won or loss on the quality and completeness of your documentation. Begin gathering and organizing any items you think might be relevant to your case early in the process. Your lawyer may direct you to conduct interviews with impacted employees, collect electronic files and preserve written correspondence.

At some point, the lawyers for other party may request specific documents and information through your attorney. Deadlines for document requests can be tight, requesting hundreds or thousands of items to be turned over in a matter of two or three weeks. It makes the process less stressful and more efficient to prepare ahead of time.

Step 6: Stay Engaged in the Process

As the process unfolds, communication is key. Insurance claims and lawsuits are routine for the professionals who manage them every day. However, that’s not the case for an architect who has never been through one before. The unfamiliar legal jargon and constant urgent deadlines can frustrate and demoralize the best of firms. Staying engaged becomes key.

Ask questions about anything that is unfamiliar and seek out regular updates on the status of the claim and legal case. It’s also helpful to set expectations of what you want from your legal counsel, such as what form of communication is best and how often you would like an update on your case matter. The more engaged you remain in the process, the more sense it will make and the more prepared you will be for its resolution.

Reduce the Risk of Lawsuits

Dealing with insurance claims and lawsuits isn’t something most architects want to spend time doing. You’d much rather focus on your firm and your work. The right risk management tools can help, minimizing the risk that lawsuits pose to you and your firm.

Following the right best practices, including setting client expectations, negotiating contracts and documenting all project advice and client decisions, will go a long ways toward preventing most lawsuits.

Pre-claim assistance through a reputable insurance partner can help resolve a complaint or dispute amicably before it grows into a full-fledged lawsuit. Politeness, responsiveness and concern can often save the day.

Finally, the right insurance is a must to protect you and your firm if a lawsuit does arise. Professional Liability Insurance from Lockton Affinity Architect + Engineer offers tailored coverage at the best prices. The program is designed specifically for design professionals, and offers added benefits including:

  • Complimentary contract reviews for every project
  • Disabled partner contingency replacement coverage
  • Your say on settlements, with no “hammer clause”
  • Discounts available with professional memberships

Plus, our commitment to best-in-class customer service means you can quickly request a quote, apply for coverage and get help answering your coverage questions. Request your indication today to find out what our coverage will look like for you.