PHIL’S CORNER: Managing Your Clients’ Expectations

Notebook with pen

A couple of things make it increasingly difficult to achieve client satisfaction in the provision of legal services. Starting out with a disgruntled client who is never happy and has already been to four other lawyers creates a mountain that is very difficult to climb. But, the other very tough situation is a client who begins with expected results that are probably impossible to ever obtain.

What Do You Want?

Several years ago, a very experienced lawyer told me they were a much better lawyer than they were 15-20 years ago. I asked if it was due to all the experience gained during that time. They responded no, it was because they were a much, much better listener. That makes sense, as we are often so consumed with informing and educating clients that we never start with hearing where they are coming from, assessing their emotions and learning about their expected outcome.

A lawyer from Tulsa once told me that the first thing she does at the initial client meeting is to hand the prospective client a legal pad and request that they take five minutes to jot down what, in their wildest imagination, they would like her to accomplish for them. This provides an opportunity to provide feedback with respect to what is reasonable and, just as important, it begins to shape the scope of representation. Make sure you document all of the agreed-to items and include an engagement letter that denotes what you will be doing and what – if anything – is not part of the engagement.

What Will It Cost?

Next, the lawyer hands the legal pad back and asks the potential client to provide a range of what they think the ultimate legal fees will be in such a matter. I believe this is an important part of not only handling expectations, but also in achieving a positive client experience. It is great to give someone an hourly rate, but unless they have experience in working with lawyers, they are not likely to know what the total dollar amount will be. If they have a range that might be dependent upon two or three factors, they are more likely to be prepared. Plus, if they are billed on a periodic basis as the matter proceeds, it is much easier than getting to the end and having one very large bill.

Communication Is Key

You probably hate to not land a client, but if there is no agreement or meeting of the minds regarding expected outcomes and legal fees, you might want to save yourself headaches and allow that client to hire someone else. Make sure you discuss potential outcomes as the matter progresses, especially the worst-case scenario. They must know that you do not have total control of all the various contingencies that may arise.

Statistical claims data collected by the ABA from lawyers professional liability carriers, including OAMIC, indicates that approximately 14% of all claims are the result of poor client communications (i.e., failure to obtain consent or inform and failure to follow client instructions). An easy strategy for better client relations is to ask yourself what you would want to know as a client, how you would want to be informed and how frequently would you want a report.

Clients typically do not understand the process. They especially do not understand or know the length of time to get on the docket, to hear back from a tax filing in an estate or probate matter, or even the time it takes to receive a ruling on a particular motion. Make sure you position yourself as part of their team, and not a legal robot, by developing a personal connection. As far as they are concerned, their matter is the most important one in your office. Affirm that by working closely with them and communicating the progress of their case.


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