What Do You Expect?
Kathy A. Biehl surprised even herself when she told a startled client that she wasn’t qualified to be his therapist and his money would be better spent telling his rambling tale of woe to a mental health professional.
Some clients would take offense at that approach, Biehl acknowledges, but the gamble paid off with this client. He stared at her for a long minute and then seemed to gather himself. When he started speaking again, he stuck to the legal issues of his case, never again mentioning the strictly emotional aspect. He later referred several friends to her practice.
Biehl says she believes the client appreciated her honesty in reminding him that she would be billing for all of the time she spent with him and that it would be in his best interest to stick to the legal issues. Biehl runs a transactional practice in Oak Ridge, N.J. Over the years, she has learned that some clients can’t be satisfied. They refuse to hear or acknowledge what the lawyer tells them, she says. But others simply need to be told the straight truth about their cases and what the lawyer will and won’t do.
Every lawyer has dealt with clients whose initial expectations about their case and their lawyer’s role are out of line with reality. Managing client expectations from the very first meeting is key to keeping the representation on track, say Biehl and others who have faced these clients.
Gwenn Roos, who runs a solo intellectual property practice in Wellesley, Mass., agrees straight talk is key to keeping client expectations in check. Often, her clients come in with a company or product name to trademark.
“I am very up-front and honest,” Roos says. “I generally know right away whether the name is going to be accepted [by the Patent and Trademark Office]. I find education goes a long way. If something isn’t going to work, I explain why.” Once she explains why a chosen name doesn’t meet the criteria for a trademark, clients generally cooperate with her efforts to help them find an acceptable name.
“My clients are fairly sophisticated businesspeople. They know I could have just taken their money, filed the application and blamed the system when it got rejected. But they would have wasted a lot of time and money on preparing to market the name, only to have to start over. They appreciate my honesty,” Roos says.
EXCEED YOUR PROMISES
The best advice Seattle attorney Matthew King says he ever got about managing clients’ expectations was from a mentor who said to “underpromise and overdeliver.”
King starts by asking clients what they want most in resolving the case. Many of King’s clients have personal injury issues, and often they simply want to know whether their cases are worth pursuing. Others tell him they expect some sort of acknowledgement or apology from the person who caused their injury.
Others just need closure. King once had a woman ask whether she should pursue a wrongful-death action after her mother died while taking a drug that was later pulled from the market. King agreed to look over the medical records and assess the case. He ended up showing the woman that her mother had signed a consent form acknowledging the drug’s risks. He advised against pursuing the case.
The potential client went away satisfied, he says, because she felt she honored her mother’s memory by asking his advice. Finding out her mother knew and accepted the risks comforted her.
King says it is vital to let personal injury clients know from the start that they shouldn’t expect a check anytime soon. “I let them know that this is a very long process. I copy them on every letter I send to the other side and on the response. When they are kept in the loop, they feel a sense of control and progress,” King says.