JEL23652-Blackford, Sheila P3 (2)    by Sheila Blackford   ©2010   For many clients, the decision to get a lawyer is a scary one. How much will it cost me? When do I have to pay? Will the lawyer be able to help me? What will the lawyer do to fix my problem? How long will this take? All questions that run through your client’s mind but may not be asked for a combination of reasons you might find surprising including, because your client is not thinking clearly, is nervous to be in your office, or is afraid you won’t want to help if you are asked these questions.

I spoke to one lawyer who shared that his elderly client would listen thoughtfully, stroking his chin and say, “hmmm, that’s a good point.” The gentleman turned out to have dementia and didn’t understand what the lawyer was talking about but wanted to appear to understand to be polite. Hopefully, your client does not suffer from dementia and will understand if you explain things simply and slowly. Here are some tips for managing your client’s expections.

Start with clarity up front. Discuss key things at the initial client meeting:
1. the client’s objective in getting a lawyer for the situation;
2. the legal process you will need to go through;
3. the range of possible outcomes with any risks affecting success;
4. the information that still needs to be gathered;
5. the method of charging and billing for your services; and
6. your realistic estimate of how long the process and how much the legal fees and costs based upon the present facts as you understand them.

Clarity up front. Use a written fee agreement that includes the scope of representation signed by you and your client.
Your client will always be in favor of being well informed. Many lawyers think that their client does not want to have a multi-page written fee agreement that includes the scope of representation, the procedure and frequency of communication, along with the procedure and frequency of billing statements and payment.

Communication goes both ways. Be sure to include the responsibilities of the client to inform the lawyer promptly about new facts, new contact information, or upcoming periods of unavailability. Otherwise you may find your client’s phone has been changed with no new number or discover your client’s plan to visit family in another country is an unwelcome 11th hour discovery as you prepare for an imminent deposition, court appearance or decision to be made.

Clarity up front. Use a scope of representation letter signed by you and your client if not incorporated into your fee agreement.
This is for your protection against misunderstandings which can lead to a very poor lawyer-client relationship, resulting in an ethics complaint or malpractice claim.

Clarity throughout your representation. Provide adequate written communication about what is happening and how it affects the outcome: result, time, and cost.
Status updates are woefully underutilized and easy to provide. The number one complaint clients have about their lawyers is a lack of communication: I don’t know what’s going on with my case! This is a complaint that is avoidable. Have form letter status updates that you can quickly customize to provide personal information. For example, personal injury cases require request for medical records. A status update letter can inform the client of which records have been received and which are still necessary. When clients find out which medical provided hasn’t responded or provided requested records, these clients frequently call to express how important it is to them, prompting the office to get the records out by the end of the day to avoid losing a patient.

Managing your client’s expectations requires communicating needed information at the beginning and throughout representation. It also requires understanding that if you provide your client with a range of time for returning phone calls or delivering documents, your client will focus on the earliest time. The payment should come in two or four days. Anyone who has ever called the pediatrician worried about a sick child, upon being told the doctor will call you right back usually waited by the phone.

It is human nature to focus intently on our problems and needs and believe that those we pay to help us with these problems do too. We hear and remember what we wanted to hear. If you start with these premises, you will naturally know how to respond to your client.

It is better to under promise and over perform.
A good adage to adopt as your client-service orientation. Tell your client you will call back by 5 p.m. and plan to call by 4 p.m.; that you will have the will done by next Friday and plan to have it done by Wednesday. If something comes up delaying you, you will still meet the deadline given to your client. Your client will be very pleased. No client ever complained about a lawyer who called back sooner or who delivered work before deadlines. Happy clients have their expectations met. By managing your client’s expectations, you will find them easier to meet.