Managing client expectations is an ongoing process that begins even before you accept a case. You first need to determine why the prospect is seeking a lawyer and whether you can help meet his objectives. Once you’ve accepted the case, your meeting or exceeding client expectations is paramount to having a successful practice.
Here are tips for (setting and) managing client expectations in your legal practice after representation begins:
Turn reasonable expectations into achievable objectives
Rule 1.0(i), Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) defines “reasonable” or “reasonably,” when used in relation to a lawyer’s conduct, as conduct of a reasonably prudent and competent lawyer. The client might have a different perspective of what reasonable means.
Throughout the representation, watch for signs of unmet expectations. If the client’s expectations are unreasonable, work with them to set more realistic ones. Provide information on what factors are outside your control and why outcomes are largely unpredictable.
Focus on what you can influence to maximize the likelihood of success. For example, in a marriage-based green card application case, immigration lawyers can help clients gather as much documentation to prove the bona fide nature of the marriage and thoroughly prepare clients for the green card interview. But they do not control which documents are actually available, which immigration officer conducts the interview, and how long the process will take.
If the client’s expectations continue to be unreasonable, consider withdrawing from representation when possible and appropriate.
Communicate clearly and promptly
A substantial portion of ethics complaints arise from lack of communication with clients.
Rule 1.4 (a), MRPC, requires you to promptly inform the client of key decisions and circumstances and obtain informed consent; reasonably consult with the client about means to accomplish objectives; keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.
At the outset, describe your communication policy and office procedures to your clients. For example, let them know whether to call you, instead of send you an email, on urgent matters. If your business phone does not accept text messages, inform clients that you do not have this capability.
Likewise, you should educate yourself about your clients’ preferred method of communication and the depth and frequency of communication they want. Do your clients prefer to use email instead of talk by telephone? Do they prefer to be called on their cell phone or on their work phone? May you contact them before or after normal business hours or on weekends?
From the start, describe the average time to get a matter resolved and the potential obstacles they might encounter along the way. This makes it much easier for them to deal with negative outcomes or delays that do occur. Even if you’re just waiting to receive a decision and nothing’s happening in the case, touch base with the client. Make a courtesy call or send a status report via email to let them know you have not forgotten about them or their case.
Give clients regular and prompt updates on the status of their case, whether it’s good news or bad news. When there’s good news, briefly remind your client about what you did to influence the outcome. Share bad news in person (or by telephone), but never by email or voice mail. Present corrective solutions or positive ways to move forward. Can the decision be appealed? Is a motion to reopen possible?
Although instant, open access to you is not always reasonable or possible, your prompt return of telephone calls, reply to emails or responses to letters is critical to meeting client expectations. If you need additional time to research their questions, get back to them within 24 hours and ask for more time to give them a more detailed response.
When communicating about their case, stay away from legal jargon. Use plain language that your client can easily understand. Repeat your explanation if necessary. When your clients fully understand you, they are better equipped to make informed decisions and will more readily trust you.
Clear, timely communication with clients does not just involve discussions about their case, but also about fees and and bills. The attorney-client relationship will break down if you are not paid for the work you do. If a client is not paying their bills, find out why and reach a mutually acceptable solution.
Over-deliver and under-promise
Rule 1.3, MRPC requires a lawyer to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client. Giving clients a realistic assessment of how long a process takes will help to manage their expectations. This doesn’t give you freedom to procrastinate, which can adversely affect the client’s interests and destroy their legal position, as Comment 3 states. At the same time, refrain from giving overly optimistic projections.
Deliver before or or on the deadline. Be careful about the promises you make and fulfill the promises you do make. If you are unable to deliver when you said you would, inform the client well ahead of the due date. Of course, you cannot miss deadlines that are set by Court orders and other external, mandatory requirements.
End the representation gracefully and with professionalism
Rule 1.1.6, MRPC, allows a client to discharge a lawyer at any time. When a client wishes to terminate your representation before you complete the work, end the relationship gracefully and with professionalism. In some instances, you can find out the reasons why and determine whether the relationship can be salvaged. But never pressure the client to stay with you or blame the client or anyone else for the breakdown in relationship.
A lawyer may also terminate representation when it will result in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law. A client who insists on presenting fake documents or false information conflicts with the lawyer’s duty of candor to the tribunal, under Rule 3.3.
Rule 1.16(d) further states that upon termination of representation, a lawyer must take reasonable steps to protect a client’s interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time to hire another lawyer, turning over papers and property belonging to the client, and refunding any advance payment of fees or expenses that has not been earned or incurred.
When representation continues to the conclusion of the matter, a closing letter or end-of-representation meeting is appropriate. This helps to prevent any misunderstandings about ongoing representation.
Ending the relationship gracefully and with professionalism– no matter the circumstances – leaves the client with clear expectations for the future. In turn, this help you avoid ethics pitfalls and malpractice traps.
Managing client expectations is an ongoing process that continues throughout representation and even after representation ends. How you conduct yourself during representation will influence the client’s level of trust in you. How you end the relationship will influence what the client says about you in the community.
Read our related article, Managing Client Expectations: Part I (before representation begins).
This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.
The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.
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Photo by: Asim Barwani