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Cathy Fitch and Partners at Coughlan, Semmer, Fitch & Pott, LLP Focus on Professional Liability Defense, With a Specialization in Legal Malpractice

Lawyers get sued by disgruntled clients when they settle, when they lose, and even when they win. They bear the blame for business deals gone bad, messy divorce disputes and all manner

of unanticipated jury verdicts. The reason lawyers are often targets will vary, but each malpractice suit, no matter how meritorious or frivolous, requires particularized attention” says Cathleen Fitch, partner with Coughlan, Semmer, Fitch & Pott, LLP.
Even though plaintiffs bear a heavy legal and factual burden when it comes to proving the elements of a legal malpractice suit, that doesn’t deter many of them from proceeding anyway. But that is where Fitch steps in. She fights for lawyers for the challenge of often complex litigation and the honor of “knowing that I can help a fellow professional,” she explains.


Fitch spent the first 8 years after earning her J.D. from Hastings College of Law working in construction, real estate and employment law. But in 1988, when her partner at Wharton & Fitch became a judge, Fitch saw the perfect opportunity to expand her scope of practice and joined the firm which was to be the predecessor to Coughlan, Semmer, Fitch & Pott, LLP. “The firm was opening its doors and developing a niche specialty in professional liability,” she says. Fitch was thrilled to step into the firm’s legal malpractice defense practice.

24“The cases are very challenging because we need to not only master legal malpractice law, but also all aspects of the underlying case or transaction handled by the lawyer. “My background in construction was of course useful in defending the underlying case against a construction or real estate lawyer, for example. But with all legal malpractice cases we must analyze and develop the underlying matter to defend the ‘case-within-a-case.’ My job is challenging and enjoyable because I learn about all aspects of the law – from trust and estates matters, probate cases, real estate transactions—to family law, etc. I like the diversity and difficulty of the practice,” Fitch says.

Indeed, Fitch has had 26 years to learn the ins and outs of legal malpractice defense, and today counts 70% of her caseload as these types of cases. As a Certified Legal Malpractice Law Specialist, and a named Super Lawyer® in professionals’ defense for three years, Fitch was a founding member of the San Diego County Bar Association Committee on Legal Malpractice and chaired the committee in 2002. She has guest lectured at San Diego State University and teaches at the annual southern California NITA Deposition Skills program. Fitch has also lectured for the State and County Bar and various continuing education groups on topics including legal malpractice, malicious prosecution, professional liability insurance, the use of expert witnesses and the attorney-client relationship.
Understandably, Fitch prefers not to cite her own published cases --because her attorney clients aren’t exactly eager to have their names synonymous with a malpractice suit, even if they’ve won-- but Fitch is happy to provide a general synopsis of some of the recent victories she’s achieved for clients. “My typical client is an attorney who has been sued for any type of contract, tort claim or fee dispute,” she says.
23For example, “In a legal malpractice case involving underlying real estate transactions, I uncovered evidence that contradicted the plaintiffs’ declarations as to the timing of their knowledge of claimed attorney wrongdoing. After the trial call, and based on our trial brief and discovery of that evidence, the court reopened and granted our summary judgment motion on the statute of limitations issue. That case in particular taught me to not give up in discovery and to relentlessly pursue all avenues of factual inquiry through court order and writ if necessary,” she recalls.

In another jury trial, in which the claimed wrongdoing involved complex securities transactions, the judge, after hearing some three weeks of evidence from the plaintiffs, found the evidence insufficient and directed a verdict in favor of our lawyer clients. Recently “a rare verdict against our client law firm was overturned on appeal in a published decision. That important case analyzed the improper use of expert testimony by the plaintiff,” Fitch adds.
Moreover, on more than one occasion, the lawyers at the firm have not only defeated malpractice charges but won attorney’s fees due the client. “In a jury trial, we won a cross-complaint for fees of over one and one half million dollars, while defeating all claims of attorney wrongdoing,” she says.


While Fitch counts legal malpractice defense a large portion of her business, her firm’s niche is in the defense of all professionals (including lawyers) and businesses in any type of civil, administrative or criminal matter. The Martindale Hubbell AV rated firm which includes partners Jerry Coughlan and Earll Pott has endured for more than 25 years due in large part to the composition of the firm and the cumulative trial experience of its partners. Collectively, the attorneys at Coughlan, Semmer, Fitch & Pott have tried more than 100 cases to judgment.

“We have had great success not only at trial, but in winning summary judgment and anti-SLAPP motions that bring early resolution to cases. We pay unique attention to spotting legal issues and presenting them successfully in a variety of dispositive motions.” By way of example Fitch says “We’ve defeated many malicious prosecution and related claims with anti-SLAPP motions, which are then subject to an immediate appeal, so there can be a lot of moving parts.” Continuing she adds, “We are also well versed in the proper use and scope of
expert testimony and have successfully limited or barred such testimony against our clients.”
The breadth of cases that the firm handles is extensive. Partner Jerry Coughlan’s practice includes more than 100 cases tried involving banking, trusts, securities, legal malpractice,
medical malpractice, Bivens and Federal Torts Claims Actions, accounting malpractice, product liability, aviation, admiralty, negligence, defamation, partnership disputes, title insurance, government contracting and a wide range of criminal cases particularly involving public corruption and corporate fraud.

He has briefed and argued approximately 50 cases on appeal. Partner Earll Pott focuses on white-collar criminal defense and related matters, complex federal and state civil business litigation and state court criminal proceedings, including cases alleging murder, extortion, vehicular manslaughter, fraud, embezzlement and sexual assault. He also has substantial experience in matters involving criminal securities fraud, false claims and political corruption, and has defended professional licenses before the medical and psychology boards, as well as the State Bar. However, there are other reasons for the firm’s success, according to Fitch. “We bill at reasonable rates. We have good relationships with major insurance carriers. We successfully develop all legal issues and defenses so that if a case should settle, it settles.
But if it has to go to trial, that is just fine too,” Fitch says. Continuing she says, “We work to develop the respect and trust of all members of the legal community so that we can effectively negotiate a settlement or urge our client’s position with authority. Mediation is an important tool in professional liability cases and we have mediated dozens of cases to resolution to the satisfaction of our clients. Moreover, she adds, “Our multi-faceted experience in the civil, administrative and criminal areas of the law allows us to offer a full range of services to the professional and bring these varied disciplines to bear on all issues facing our clients.”

Coughlan, Semmer, Fitch & Pott, LLP has remained a small firm by design. “We are very hands-on,” says Fitch, who says that she’s interested in growing her caseload, but not necessarily firm size. “The partners of the firm are all trial attorneys. We want our fellow attorneys to have the direct benefit of that experience and expertise, so we prefer to delegate sparingly,” she says.



For those meeting Fitch for the first time, her calm demeanor is instantly apparent. She chooses her words carefully and calmly articulates her thoughts in relatively soft-spoken manner. Those who have faced in her in a lawsuit however, immediately find that her quiet confidence belies a fierce competitor, and she attributes a great deal of this to her 20 year practice and study of karate. As a third degree black belt who has medaled in both sparing and kata, Fitch is quick to acknowledge that she has learned a great deal from her karate Sensei Miko Peled “who has taught me not only physical strength but mental stamina and how to face adversity,” she says.
Fitch tries to train 2-3 times per week, participates in tournaments and says that she initially got interested in the martial arts when her son -who now holds an advanced degree
in international relations and conflict resolution- and her daughter -who is now an architect working in Los Angeles- were taking karate lessons as children. “My husband is a land surveyor who owns a land surveying company in Sorrento Valley. He had trained in traditional Okinawan karate style since college. He found a local dojo offering classes in his style and started our children at age 5,” she recalls. It then became a family affair.
When it comes to the parallels between her profession and her passion for martial arts, the link between the two is clear to Fitch. “I think I am known for my tenacity in pursuing results, but people are often taken by surprise because I can appear unassuming,” Fitch says. “In karate you are trained to fight, but never to pick one. It is both a mental and physical workout combined with moral elements. You learn what to do in a bad situation and you learn to think defensively, but you never brag about your training or wear your belt outside the dojo. You don’t swagger. If you tell people you have a belt, someone will want to challenge you, and that is not the objective. The objective is to be trained for the fight, if necessary,” she says. Suffice to say, “My training has had a big influence on my life and my law practice,” she adds. “And karate is also great for stress management which is a necessity for any litigator.”

• Hastings College of Law J.D. (1980), where she was Chief Articles Editor of Hastings International and Comparative Law Review
• University of California at Davis (1977), where she was Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in Economics
• Studied Economics and Swedish at the University of Lund, Lund, Sweden (1975-1976).
• Certified Legal Malpractice Law Specialist

• Founding member of the San Diego County Bar Association Committee on Legal Malpractice and chaired the committee in 2002
• Teaches at the annual NITA Deposition Skills program
• Lectures for the State Bar and continuing education groups on the topics of legal malpractice, malicious prosecution, professional liability insurance, the use of expert witnesses and the attorney-client relationship
• Served as an arbitrator for the San Diego County Bar Association fee arbitration panel
• Member of the San Diego County Bar Association

• San Diego Super Lawyers for 2013

Cathleen Fitch
(619) 232-0800
550 West “C” Street, Suite 1400
San Diego, CA 92101


Karen Gorden

Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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About the Author: Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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