What They didn’t teach you at the Law School
Law School prepares you to think, write and research like a lawyer, but once you’re at the door of a law firm or a courtroom, there’s a whole new set of skills you need. The present series of articles aims to enrich a new lawyer with all these skills in order for him/her to excel.
As lawyers, we are often working with clients when they are not at their best – they may be under pressure, distressed or confused by the legal issue facing them. Even if we are fortunate enough to start off with an excellent relationship with our client we still need to ensure that it is not built on unrealistic expectations, otherwise the relationship will quickly disintegrate when reality does not meet their vision.
Here are some tips to manage client expectations that are unattainable in the short term, or unsustainable in the long term.
Turn expectations into achievable goals
Find out what your client ideally hopes to achieve from your service and outline exactly what you can deliver for them. Make sure the goal that you are working towards is the same as the one your client has in mind.
Be honest with your client about what to expect, tell them the best and the worst case scenarios. Identify what aspects of the case or matter are outside of your control, no matter how hard you work. Even the most outstanding service will never be enough if your client’s expectations are unrealistic. The client is the one who unknowingly holds expectations that are unrealistic, impractical and sometimes impossible. However, you are responsible for tactfully recalibrating those expectations to a level that can be met.
Communicate with your client
Always respond to your client’s calls and emails in a timely fashion. Put yourself in your client’s shoes and consider if an expedited response is necessary.
Avoid excessive legalese. You may not even realise that you’re doing it but legal jargon sounds like a foreign language to most clients. Use plain English so as to facilitate clear communication; your client will be much more at ease if they confidently understand what you’re talking about.
Keep the client updated about everything that is going on. Even if nothing substantial has happened, just give them a courtesy call to make them feel at ease.
Don’t even delay bad news. Pick up the phone and inform the client of the problem and then suggest a solution or way forward. Always confirm any discussions and advice in writing.
Be transparent and over-explain
Always keep clients involved in decision making, but arm them with the necessary advice to make informed decisions. Explain their options, the pros and cons and give your advice, but leave the decision in their hands.
Relaxed people are easier to negotiate with, so it’s important to cultivate your client’s trust and peace of mind. For most clients, becoming embroiled in a legal dispute is like being led onto a battlefield blindfolded. Remove their blindfold and step them through the legal process. Provide genuine reassurance and take the time to make sure they thoroughly understand the legal issues and what is involved.
Don’t be afraid to discuss changes in costs
If a case or matter has become more complex than expected and additional work is required, then discuss the cost implications with your client as soon as possible. This will ensure that the relationship doesn’t end with your client suffering bill-shock.
Deliver before or on the deadline
Stick to the deadline. If you’ve promised to provide something within a certain time-frame but now you feel that you’ll not be able to deliver, always let your client know in advance. Of course, there will be times where you have no choice but to comply with a deadline due to external factors such as court orders.
Once you have gained the client’s confidence, you can handcraft your client’s expectations as to probable outcomes and time frames. If necessary, identify risks in the client’s intended course of action and highlight the advantages of taking an alternative course.
Remember that successful client management requires continual work. Be proactive with communication and provide a brief update every four to six weeks. Continue to adjust expectations where necessary and set deliverable goals that you can then achieve.
*Executive Editor, Lawyers Update; Director General, Universal Institute of Legal Studies