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Confronting Your Client’s Expectations

It’s hour 4 in mediation. When your client is offered a mid-six figure offer, you quickly advise to accept.  Yet, your client looks disappointed and says he will not take anything below seven figures.  You now end up spending the rest of your day trying to convince your client that they should take the offer on the table, and avoid the risk of losing all at trial. 

This is a classic example of a lawyer’s failure to manage client expectation.  He wants a zillion dollars because this case is the biggest thing to ever happen to him.  But according to the law, the mid-six figures is a win.  The two sides are far apart, but you’re supposed to be on the same legal team.  Being in sync is a process that has to start on the very first day that client walks into your office.

The American Bar Association reports that failure to communicate with clients is commonly cited as the number one reason for bar complaints. 

Law schools don’t offer courses on the topic. California Business and Professions Code requires that an attorney keep clients “reasonably informed,” on matters relating to their case.  But what’s reasonable?

Attorney communication with clients involves more than just returning phone calls and emails.  Problems can arise when attorneys fail to keep clients informed of developments in their case, significant or not. Here are a few tips at to stay on top of things:

Initial Meeting

Identify their expectations.  Be realistic and honest as to the likelihood of fulfilling that expectation during your initial meeting(s). Explain the best and worst case scenarios. It is the attorney’s job to make expectations realistic. 

Inform Your Client of Any Problems or Potential Risks You Come Across

Keep your client apprised of how their case is moving along.  If you get bad news, let your client know right away.  This usually isn’t easy, but it’s harder if you’re not prepared for the conversation. Provide suggestions for a solution immediately so your client can be involved in the decision-making.

Communicate Fees and Costs

A discussion of attorney fees, contingent on the settlement or not, should happen early on. Give the client an estimated fee from a possible settlement amount as an example.   Go over everything from postage and copies to expert testimony fees that will be deducted from their final settlement or judgement.  If a case gets more complicated or time intensive and that means your costs are going to exceed your estimate, let your client know right away, and put additional fees in writing. No client has ever complained because their lawyer gave them too much information. 

In the end, litigators should make sure their mutual goals with clients are not only met, but surpassed.  Setting realistic goals makes it possible, as long as everyone agrees on what those goals are.