Client Expectations from Start to Finish

One truth I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been doing this lawyering thing, is that there is no consistency. If there was, I’d set my watch, sit back, and watch my pennies multiply into dollars. Unfortunately, part of the non-consistent nature of running a law firm also involves less consistent clients.

My Doldrums post garnered a lot of attention, both for its poignancy, but I think also for the truthfulness of the issues presented. One reader expressed some frustration with the behavior of prospective clients. The commenter asked how to handle the stress of the elusive non-appearing prospective client. My response was lengthier, but touched on the important principle of setting client expectations.

Early in my life career, I recognized that there are two types of people: those who respect someone’s time, and those who don’t. At some stage, we all fall into each category, regardless of how hard we try not to. I think of this as the doctor phenomena: think sitting in a waiting room, and you get the idea. The trouble is, we haven’t set expectations for ourselves or for those we interact with, or perhaps we set the wrong expectation.

One of my core rules is that my clients, no matter how friendly, never get my cell phone or back office line number. Ever. My rule came from experience, one where I learned about people’s respect for boundaries. “Fool me once,” as they say . . .

Clients, regardless of their status, need a certain “care and feeding.” My policy, at least for the past year, is to be open and honest about my expectations. From the very first contact, until our last interaction, I try to explain and prepare my clients for my particular expectations for behavior.

I’ve discovered that helping clients to know and understand the rules of the insert-your-legal-practice-area-here game, helps prepare them for the tremendous ups and downs.

As I explained in my comment, I try to help a prospective client appreciate and understand the value of my time. When I set up an appointment, I make sure to outline the expectations for behavior. I bluntly explain that I’m dedicating a particular amount of time for their appointment, and if they don’t show, that missed appointment not only affects my schedule, but my other clients too. This bluntness with a prospective client improves the conversion during the initial client meeting.

During the initial client meeting, I outline the importance of being totally honest, not only with my clients, but with doctors, other lawyers and the court. Hopefully, by the end of our discussion, the client understands that when they call me I know it’s important, and vice versa. I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe this openness helps cut down on the needless “whining” calls and messages that so frequently interrupt my schedule.

I also empowered my staff to help answer, and sometimes screen, the ever-present “what’s the status of this case” question. My clients know that they can call and speak with my assistant (without a charge) to get a quick update about the case status or to answer any generic questions. My assistant knows her boundaries and limitations, so if the question becomes too involved, she can schedule a telephone conference at another time. I’ve found that most clients just want a good handle on the case progress, but lawyers sometimes neglect to give out the small morsels. Sometimes we forget that our clients trusted us with their most important event, and we should feel compelled to treat it gingerly.

As the case progresses, I try my best to keep the client informed. I’ve started a new process of using my practice management software to remind me to do certain case tasks, including updating the client, before too much time passes.

One of the duties of a lawyer is to communicate with his or her clients. There’s no better way to communicate your commitment than to set appropriate expectations for client behavior. Your communication helps convey the importance of your time, your dedication to their cause and your willingness to help them achieve the best possible result. Setting client expectations from the start ensures successful client expectations the end.

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  1. [...] in my career,” writes Small Firm Innovation’s Jeffrey Taylor, “I recognized that there are two types of people: those who respect someone’s time, and those [...]