Solo View: Managing client expectations

March 4, 2011
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By Tanya Witt
The Witt Law Firm

Want clients who are extremely pleased with your legal service? Focus on providing exceptional service and managing client expectations.

It is not enough to provide excellent service if your clients' expectations are or were unrealistic. If you do not properly manage client expectations you could be providing first-rate legal services but still have clients who are dissatisfied. High client satisfaction is achieved when you deliver results that closely align with or exceed what your client anticipated.

I practice family law. Most clients have some perceptions about divorce and child custody, often originating from friends who have gone through a divorce. It is important to discover what your client is anticipating. Just because the friend's divorce was wrapped up in three months does not mean his or her case will conclude that quickly. From the beginning determine if the client has preconceived perceptions about his or her legal matter, your representation and the ultimate result.

Chicago personal-injury attorney Jeffrey J. Kroll affirms that properly managing client expectations is a process, not an event.

"It is our job to tell them the good, the bad and the ugly," Kroll said.

Attorneys must keep clients informed about how their case is proceeding. "Surprises may be nice at birthdays or holidays, but clients surely don't appreciate them on the eve of trial," Kroll said.

South Carolina attorney Monet Pincus generated a lot of buzz recently with the Client Expectations page of her website. Pincus states on her site, "We do not work on the weekends and do not provide emergency numbers for the weekends" and "Do not think we are perfect. We make mistakes. We are competent attorneys and paralegals, but we make mistakes. We will correct a mistake if we find it or if you point it out."

Pincus' site also provides prospective clients with straightforward information about the legal process of disputes. Commentators were split on whether the Client Expectations page was beneficial. Some felt a policy of not working weekends could be fatal to many practices. Others felt the objective of setting expectations at the outset was commendable, but that the tone could be softened. Clients want a lawyer who is prepared, efficient and, if necessary, willing to work some weekends.

Client expectations can perhaps be divided into two broad categories: macro expectations and micro expectations. I use the term macro expectations to refer to big picture issues, such as the client's ultimate objective in retaining an attorney. Perhaps the client is retaining counsel to defend a breach of contract dispute and the client's objective is for the case to be dismissed without payment of any damages.

Micro expectations may include issues such as how quickly an attorney returns calls and e-mails. If a client said he believes calls should be returned within two hours and you are unable to do that, your client may be disappointed.

Many macro expectations are things that we, as attorneys, cannot control: The odds of success depend greatly on the underlying facts that led to the dispute. The time required for the case to make it through the court system depends upon the court's docket and opposing counsel. Macro expectations include the client's ultimate objective in retaining the attorney, the time frame required to obtain the client's objective and the cost involved in obtaining the client's objective.

From the outset, be sure your client and you are on the same page regarding the objectives. If the client's objective is clearly unrealistic, is he or she amenable to modifying the objective? If the client is not amenable to modifying the objective but realizes it is a long shot, are you comfortable accepting the matter?

A second macro expectation is the time frame required to obtain the client's objective. If obtaining the client's objective requires going to court, it is important that the client understands that you cannot control the court's docket and procedures. It is understandable that most people going through a divorce or another dispute in court would like for it to be concluded as quickly as possible. Counsel the client on available approaches that could expedite the case and what trade-offs those approaches may have.

Clients may have expectations about how attorneys operate, such as how promptly e-mails and calls are returned. It may be a good practice to let clients know upfront that e-mails and calls will be returned as soon as possible, but not immediately, as legal advice may require a certain amount of reflection.

Each of us needs to decide whether we will answer calls and e-mails on weekends and, if so, under what circumstances. Often there may be nothing an attorney can do over a weekend. To have an effective and enjoyable practice attorneys need to establish times when they do not work.

To ensure that our clients have accurate expectations we should educate them about their legal matters and communicate with them clearly and often throughout representation. Then experience the fulfillment that comes from knowing your clients are pleased with your representation. High client satisfaction is an achievable goal. Start every representation by listening, educating and communicating and then keep doing it.