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May/June 2020

Simple Steps

Managing Clients’ Expectations

Allison C. Shields

Many clients have little to no experience with the legal system when they first consult a lawyer. Whether their legal issue is a personal one or is business-related, the experience of consulting a lawyer or being embroiled in a legal matter can be emotional and confusing, particularly for first-time clients. Too often, problems arise in the attorney-client relationship due not to a failure of technical skill or legal knowledge on the part of the lawyer, but to a failure to understand or meet the client’s expectations, to relieve their anxiety or guide them appropriately through this foreign territory. This breakdown can usually be avoided if the lawyer manages expectations appropriately.

Whether the client is consulting a lawyer for the first time or has worked with lawyers for years, every client comes to the first legal consultation with perceptions, accurate or not, about the matter, the legal system and lawyers in general. Failing to find out what they are and address them can jeopardize the relationship. But lawyers can get so caught up in their expertise, skills, experience and in providing the service or solution that they think is best for the client that they forget to listen to the client to find out what the client believes they want and need. Or they don’t take the time to explain to clients why their expectations cannot be met. To make matters worse, lawyers too often evaluate their own performance based upon outcomes alone, rather than the client’s experience with their firm, which can be the most valuable measure of a client’s satisfaction.

Identify Expectations

The first step in managing clients’ expectations is to find out what they are. Keep in mind that clients have expectations about both results and service. Developing a successful attorney-client relationship means lawyers need to be skilled at managing both kinds of expectations.

One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that all clients facing the same legal problem have the same expectations. In fact, seemingly identical clients rarely have identical wants and needs. Two clients who appear to have the same legal problem or issue to be resolved may still have different objectives or goals and may require different legal services, a different approach and even a different fee structure. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to these two different clients is bound to backfire.

It sounds simplistic, but the easiest way to ascertain the client’s expectations is to ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the client’s responses. Resist the urge to interrupt or to leap in with a solution until the client has finished outlining their expectations. And then don’t take those initial expectations as the final answer. It may take some digging to find out what the client’s real objectives are.

Ask questions about both the substance of the client’s matter and the desired outcome, but do not stop there. Ask about the reasons behind those goals or desired outcomes, as well as the circumstances surrounding the legal matter. Consider the client’s situation in terms of cost (both financial and emotional), as well as how the legal matter might impact the client’s business, reputation, and business and family relationships. Might there be unexpected consequences that the client has not considered?

Ask about the client’s expectations about service, including things like frequency and manner of communication, availability and accessibility, and expectations about budget and fees. Explore the client’s prior experience with the legal industry in general or with their specific legal problem. Identify any misinformation or preconceived notions the client has received from other sources.

Manage Expectations

Once you know what your client expects, you can determine how well those expectations align with reality. You may choose to either adjust how you provide your service to meet the client’s expectations or work with the client to adjust their expectations, if necessary.

Good client service isn’t just about determining the client’s wants and then delivering exactly that and nothing more. Doing so is actually a disservice to clients. As the professional, your job is to help define and reshape the client’s expectations based upon your own experience, knowledge of the law and knowledge of the client’s situation or business and industry, and to give the client the best advice you can based on that knowledge and experience.

It is important to go beyond what clients say they want to explore the reasons behind it; sometimes what the clients think they want is actually against their best interests or may conflict with their broader goals and objectives. When clients choose a direction or course of action, advise them of alternatives and potential pitfalls that might arise. Provide options.

One of the major sources of disagreements between lawyers and clients is the issue of scope creep. Be extremely clear about the scope of work to be performed for the client and the fees for that work. Incorporate the scope of work and any variables that might change the scope of work into your engagement agreement.

Some aspects of a legal matter are outside the control of either the lawyer or the client. These items should be fully explored with the client, to help the client understand the process. Outlining the process for the client and identifying factors that may be beyond the lawyer’s control help build trust, which is reinforced throughout the engagement as the process unfolds.

Consider providing the client with something concrete in addition to your engagement agreement that lays out the key elements of the client’s matter to promote discussion. This can be a flowchart, timeline or other visual representation of the client’s matter, along with a summary of the client’s goals and expectations. Provide a step-by-step outline of the process for the client in writing so the client has something to refer to throughout the engagement.

Develop frequently asked questions. Most lawyers answer the same basic questions from clients over and over. Create a list of those FAQs along with appropriate answers to provide to new clients.

Taking the time to have detailed discussions with clients and providing them with the simple documentation outlined above help ease clients’ anxiety and give them a framework to understand how their matter will move forward, while ensuring that both lawyer and client are in agreement about the steps to be taken to achieve the client’s goals. In some cases, this discussion may lead to a decision not to take on the client, which may avoid bigger problems in the future.

Get Feedback Throughout the Engagement

Managing expectations is not a one-time endeavor. Client expectations and goals can change during the course of their matter. Staying in close communication with the client so that further strategy discussions can take place in the event that changes occur is important. Ask clients for feedback regularly to confirm that the client is receiving the expected level of service. Make adjustments when necessary.

No law practice can survive without clients, regardless of the technical excellence of the lawyers within the firm. How satisfied the client feels with the lawyer’s service will be dependent upon how well the service the client has received matches with the client’s expectations. Identifying, managing and exceeding clients’ expectations—providing the client with an exceptional client experience—leads to increased client loyalty and satisfaction.

Establishing good rapport with the client at the initial consultation, which can set expectations early to ensure good communication and set the tone for the remainder of the engagement, is imperative.

Clients need not only your substantive legal expertise but also your ability to guide them through every aspect of their legal matter. Don’t overlook the value of spending time exploring and managing the client’s expectations, leading the client through the process, and providing them with the tools and information to understand that process in addition to discussing the legal issues and results.

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Allison C. Shields


Allison C. Shields is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., where she works with lawyers and law firms to develop strategies to improve marketing and client service, and increase productivity, efficiency and profitability. She is the co-author of several books, including Make LinkedIn Work for You: A Practical Handbook for Lawyers and Other Legal Professionals, LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers (ABA 2013) and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line (ABA 2014).