Set Reasonable Expectations for Clients

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Last week, I presented at a meeting of the Windham County Bar Association.  The audience included lawyers of all different ages, practice areas, and firm size.

I enjoy the seminars attended by lawyers with varied backgrounds & experiences.  They provide an opportunity to get down to the nitty gritty – the basics of professional responsibility that apply to all of us.

Here’s a tip that spans the gamut: work hard to manage client expectations.

Rule 1.3 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct requires a lawyer to act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client.  The first sentence of Comment [3] is:

  • “Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination.”

The Comment goes on to outline the risks associated with a failure to act with reasonable diligence.

I’ve worked here for 21 years and reviewed more than 3000 disciplinary complaints.  I agree that clients don’t appreciate lawyers who procrastinate.  However, to the extent that the Comment suggests that disciplinary complaints are driven by the wide resentment at procrastination, I disagree

In my experience, disciplinary complaints are not driven by resentment.  They are driven by a lawyer’s failure to meet a client’s expectations. That is: the client didn’t achieve the expected result, in the expected time frame, at the expected cost.  Nor did the lawyer communicate with the client as often as the client expected.

Often, these “failures” are not failures at all, and certainly aren’t ethics violations.  Rather, they’re the predictable result of a lawyer’s failure to set reasonable expectations at the outset of the representation.

Imagine:

“Dear Bar Counsel:

I don’t want to get my lawyer in trouble, but I don’t want anyone else to have the same experience I did.  I hired my lawyer 3 years ago.  When I did, my lawyer told me that I had a great case and that I should expect X. 

At first, things were great.  My lawyer seemed interested in my case and we spoke all the time.  Things have changed.

Here we are, 12 months later and there’s no end in sight.  My lawyer now tells me that the best I can hope for is far less than X.  My lawyer is going to drop me as a client unless I come up with more money.  I don’t have any more money! I already spent $Y! I never would’ve hired the lawyer if I had known it was going to take this long and cost this much to get what I could’ve gotten on my own.”

That’s not an uncommon complaint.

Consider:

  • far less than X,
  • in 12 months, at
  • $Y.

Guess what they often turn out to be?

Exactly what the client should’ve expected from the outset, but for the lawyer’s failure to set reasonable expectations.  In other words, from the beginning, the professional relationship proceeded under the illusion that communication had taken place.

In a way, then, I don’t blame the client for being upset.  How was the client to know?

Here’s how:  you.

Communicate reasonable expecations as to outcome, cost, and length of time to resolution.  Do so early & often.  A lawyer who doesn’t risks a communication breakdown that turns good times into bad times.

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