A lawyer has many responsibilities in representing his or her clients. One of the most important is expectation management.
No matter what area of law you are practicing, it is unlikely that your clients have a realistic concept of what lies in front of them at the outset of the legal relationship. In addition to promoting your legal abilities to a new client by explaining what you hope to accomplish as their attorney, you need to balance that expectation by at least alluding to what the worst case scenario might be. Don’t set your legal relationship up for failure by letting your clients think everything is going to be fixed just because they hired The Great and Powerful ATTORNEY!
Clients come to us with two things, a problem and the belief that we can and will fix it, and fast. They want us to waive our magic wand and give them a simple answer or solution that puts their life back just as it was right before a bad decision was made or a tragedy occurred. Unfortunately that is not always, if ever, possible. Clients are often facing a cliche “between a rock and a hard place” situation, that seems all or nothing to them. However, if you stand back and look at almost any situation objectively, as a good lawyer does, there is a huge amount of room between the rock and the wall. That middle ground is where you almost always end up at the conclusion of your case. Your clients should know that from minute one.
If you are representing a criminal defendant, you may need to explain that the charges are not just going to go away and that a plea negotiation might be their best choice. There is no magic wand that can undo what was done. Even if you get the charges dropped or win a full acquittal at trial, the ordeal will have at least some lasting effect on the rest of the client’s life. If you need to take the case to trial, it could cause family members and loved ones to be drug into an emotional world that can be very difficult to handle. You have to give them the best options available, explain the consequences of each, and let them know that they have to choose. You aren’t doing your job as an attorney, or “counselor,” if you don’t set these possibilities out from the beginning.
If you are representing an accident victim, realize there is nothing you can do to make their physical pain go away or make the claims process painless either. You must set their expectations from the beginning, and tell the client that it is a long process that will involve a lot of documentation from the medical providers and insurance companies, potential discovery questions and depositions, and of course the possibility of a trial. Clients need to know up front that they aren’t just going to sign your retainer and then magically get a $1,000,000 check from the insurance company the next week. The check they get, if they get a check, is likely to be closer to $10,000 than $1 Million, and it is likely to take closer to a year (or more) rather than a mere week.
It is important that you know that no matter how talented of a lawyer you are, you will eventually disappoint a client. It may be your fault, it may not, and it may just be a case of expecting the impossible. If your client maintains hope of an unrealistic outcome, when you fail to deliver on that expectation, even if in reality you have masterminded a spectacular win, the client will not feel satisfied. When that happens, swallow your pride, apologize that they were unhappy with your service, and move on. (Of course, you still collect your fee!)
As a final take away, just remember, you can avoid a lot of angry, emotional, confused, and disappointed phone calls along the way if you simply set the proper expectation up front. If you set the bar too high up front and fall even a little short, you will end up looking like a fool. But, if you set a realistic expectation up front and follow it up by delivering an exceptional result, you might just end up looking like The Great and Powerful ATTORNEY after all.