Clients can seem like complicated, insane creatures at times.
One moment they want this thing, then they don’t. They say something is urgent, but it’s not really. They pay huge bills but question tiny ones.
It’s a confusing relationship for many lawyers, and managing it can take a lot of time and effort.
If you want happy clients though, there’s only one thing you really need to care about across the entire ambit of possibilities.
The Expectations Game
If you consistently meet or exceed your clients’ expectations, then you’ve won.
But although it’s simple, it’s not always that easy.
So let’s take a look at the major categories of expectations that you’re going to need to manage.
Expectations of Time
Things being slow, or late, is one of the most common complaints that clients make about their lawyers.
As a result it’s one of the major areas that you MUST be managing as part of your interactions.
It’s not just a matter of doubling every time estimate – it’s a matter of wise decision making and then conscious execution.
Let’s say a client calls you up and says “Chris, I need you to review a contract by this afternoon”.
You could say “Well Mary, that’s a stupid request which I can’t possibly deliver and it’s obviously not as urgent as you suggest”.
But that wouldn’t be great in terms of client relationships.
Instead, what if you asked some questions and made a proposition. Find out why it’s so important they get it this afternoon. As whether the next morning might be OK instead.
Do they need it in writing, or can you give them a discussion to be confirmed in writing later?
What’s their primary concern? Would it be OK if you just dealt with that within the urgent timeframe?
You see the point – managing expectations of time involves understanding precisely what the issues are. Sure, you could just assume that they want a full written advice on every clause of the contract and bust your guts to try and get it done (but maybe not succeed) – but you don’t need to.
Here are the main rules of thumb:
- ensure you know what the task really involves
- take into account the priorities of others – don’t accept a task requiring 5 hours of research if nobody has 5 available hours to do research inside that time span
- don’t panic and forget all of your basic administrative issues – like getting a proper engagement and considering how you’re going to get paid
- things always take slightly longer than you expect, especially if the task is slightly novel
- if there is any chance you can’t deliver inside the promised timeframe, you need to tell your client. Don’t wuss out and just hope that your client will forget you promised them the outcome – they won’t. They might not mention it, but they haven’t forgotten.
Money was clearly going to come into it.
Clients get upset when things cost more than they were expecting.
Sometimes their expectations were crazy – but they were always within your control.
You can set and manage the expectations in terms of cost at every interaction.
Most lawyers don’t – we don’t like talking about it, and so we just hope that when we send the bill nobody will ask questions.
That’s a bit cowardly. If you’ve managed expectations in terms of matter costs from the outset, then your client shouldn’t have any surprises about their bill.
It’s also poor form. If you engaged a plumber at your house and they said “oh yeah, I reckon this will cost around $750” and then out of the blue send you a bill for $5,000 – would you be happy?
Sometimes things happen that weren’t expected and cost more. This can happen very quickly, and even before you’ve probably realised what’s going on with the WIP on your file.
But those occasions are rare – normally they happen because we stopped paying attention, or we knew that it was going to happen and just decided to avoid the “hard” conversation with the client about it.
So be brave – tackle cost questions and issues up front, and so far as it’s up to you, ensure that there are no surprises when you invoice your client this month.
This is the hardest.
It’s hard because of the management options.
You could always tell everyone that everything could go wrong, always – and downplay expectations at every turn. Many lawyers do this, but it’s not a great plan. For starters you come across as very negative (not ideal in terms of managing trust with your client) and your client will start to think that you don’t “believe” in their case.
Remember this: every client believes themselves to be right, righteous and rightfully entitled to the outcome they seek.
So of course you must give them honest advice about the likelihood of that happening, whether it’s Court or property or Family Law or whatever.
But within that context you also need to ensure that your client understands that advice.
A lot of lawyers will write a 19 page letter on prospects and believe themselves to have “delivered the bad news”. But you probably haven’t.
Most likely your client didn’t understand a lot of the letter, but don’t want to ask.
I recommend having a conversation with your client after sending such a letter or forming such a view. Be proactive – don’t wait for them to call, but actually set up a call or a meeting to discuss the advice and ensure they understand it.
You can only manage client expectations as a lawyer if you know what those expectations are.
Don’t make assumptions.
Be clear. Be transparent.
And keep your clients happy.