Managing Client Expectations
Does law school take common sense out of lawyers? Or is it lack of common sense that drove them to law school in the first place? Regardless, it seems that too many attorneys just don’t have common sense, especially when it comes to dealing with clients. That’s why we’re always blathering on about “managing client expectations” and other such hubbub, when really, it comes down to common sense and the “Golden Rule”.
In my experience there’s only one way to correctly manage client expectations: meet them. That’s right. Give your client what they expect. Always. In fact, give them more. And if they expect too much? Find a different client or find another profession.
As attorneys we are problem solvers. Litigation is conflict resolution, civil or criminal. And transactional work is all about solving your client’s problem (how to get the deal done, how to mitigate risk, etc.) Communication and negotiation is our stock and trade. If you’re having trouble managing your client’s expectations, how are you managing to deal with opposing counsel?
Managing client expectations is not exclusive to the practice of law. In fact, it has virtually nothing to do with law. And thinking about it from the perspective that it is somehow different for lawyers than it is for doctors, or mechanics, or plumbers is where problems arise. I know law school tries to tell us something different, but the law is suppose to be a vocation and a profession. It’s not punching the clock on a 9-5 shift.
Think about non-legal problems you have had in your life. How did the professionals you consulted handle your expectations? I had a hot water heater die recently. I called a plumber who told me they could come out later that afternoon. They called at 11AM to say they finished another job early and could come now, if I was available, or the time they originally stated if I’d made arrangements for then. I had them come immediately. They fixed the water heater problem with a very simple fix that cost me virtually nothing for the part, and only charged me for a half-hour of their time–because that’s all it took to fix it. Expectations managed. How hard was it? Not very. In fact, by calling me before hand and offering to come earlier they exceeded my expectations–but they didn’t have to. If they’d just shown up on-time when they said they would originally I would have been satisfied. Why would you treat your law practice clients any differently than this plumber treated me? And if you said, “Because I’m busier than a plumber,” then you don’t know plumbers.
So how do I manage my client’s expectations? Easy:
- I find out what they are: I ask about their concerns. I ask about their budget. I ask about their deadlines. I find out what they want me to do for them.
- I Do it.
If I can’t do it, I don’t take the client. If my current workload is such that I’m not going to be able to give them the attention they need–and deserve–then I simply tell them I’m too busy to handle the matter. But–and this is important–I always have a referral of a colleague ready to go who can help them. I don’t turn away clients with no options for help. Why? Because I didn’t become a lawyer to rack up billable hours; I became a lawyer to help clients. That means putting clients needs first when I commit to helping them, and if I can’t do that, not committing to them in the first place.
When I tell people this I often get push-back, “Sure, but what about when you get sick? Or have a family obligation? Or a vermicious knid attacks?” That’s easy: be available and be honest. Being available does not mean answering your office phone at 3:00AM if you’re a real estate attorney (if you’re a criminal attorney, it might). But it does mean promptly returning e-mails and phone calls. Or better still, be proactive not reactive. If you discover a problem that’s going to cause a delay, do everything you can to mitigate it and if you can, call the client first, to explain the situation.
Being honest? Well, I shouldn’t have to explain this to a bunch of lawyers (see July’s theme) but don’t beat around the bush or make up excuses. This may come as a surprise to some, but your clients are people. They have families. They get flat-tires. They get sick. Provided you’re not constantly making excuses or falling short in expectations, they will understand. And you can make it up by exceeding their expectations in another area, do it. If they don’t understand, maybe they aren’t a good fit as a client for you, or maybe you need to go back to the Golden Rule and take stock of your common sense.
Treating your clients like you want to be treated and communicating with them promptly an honestly. That’s all it takes to manage their expectations.