Managing Client Expectations

Managing Client Expectations.

A new client walks through your door. The client’s story passes the sniff test, and you know they have a cause of action. You are optimistic that you can obtain a good result. So how do you avoid setting your client’s expectations too high?

Communicating Expectations

Communication really is at the heart of managing a client’s expectations. You should communicate both your expectations of the client and explain to them what they can expect from you in return. This may be a little awkward, but it will ensure that both you and the client understand the client’s goal and the steps that you will need to take to achieve that goal.

If possible, a timeline for the case should be clearly established up front and understood by all parties. Think about how you handle these cases and when the client can expect resolution. For instance, will matters be settled once you go to court for their speeding ticket? Or maybe you typically turn around a simple will in about a week? If giving a timeline is not possible at the outset, as in a civil litigation case, be sure to tell the client that a typical case generally takes a certain amount of time after the complaint is filed, but that you will also need time to research and prepare the complaint.

Never make guarantees, especially when the timeframe is dictated by someone or something that you cannot control, like insurance companies or stubborn opposing counsel. By communicating a general timeframe, it can help ease worries about whether you are actually working on their case or just letting their file become buried on your desk.

Detail your office practices regarding client communications. For example, do you always return phone calls within 24 hours? Is email a better method of contact for you? Will a case manager or assistant be handling most of the day-to-day client communication? Will you send updates by postal mail? Ensure that your clients do not leave without understanding how frequently they can expect to, or expect not to, hear from you. By ensuring that everyone is clear on the office client communication practices, upset phone calls, angry emails or, in extreme circumstances bar complaints, can be avoided.

Be clear about your expectations of the client as well. If the case requires a retainer, tell the client that you will not perform any work on their case until the retainer has been received in full. Explain that you need bills to be paid timely fashion so that you can continue to work on their case. Explain what will happen if the client does not pay their bill. If you are clear on these policies from the outset, your client is on notice about your expectation of timely payment for your work.

In cases that require client involvement, make sure the client understands what you need from them. Explain that once you receive discovery requests from opposing counsel, the client’s full cooperation is essential to produce the requested information. As much as we would like to, we cannot make a client’s personal documents appear from thin air. Without the client’s help, there is no way that the client’s case can be presented effectively, which is damaging to you both.

Put it in Writing

This is a no-brainer. If you have set out your expectations in your initial meeting with the client, you have done most of the hard part already. However, it is always a good idea to reduce your expectations to writing and to provide a copy of the document to your client. There is no hard and fast rule, though. Whether you choose a fee agreement, an engagement letter or some other method, you should set out all of the terms of your relationship with the client, including, but not limited to, the aforementioned topics.

You may want to point out some of the finer points that are specific to your client. For example, if you are handling a contingent case, be sure to point out any provisions relating to payment of costs, such as postage, medical records requests, etc. Do you intend to bill the client for costs as they arise? Will your office pay for costs and recoup them from any settlement or award? Will the client pay the costs if they lose? A client may become upset if they suddenly learn that they are on the hook for a large bill when they thought they would not owe any money if their case was not successful.

Why Go Through all this Trouble?

While some of these points may sound like good ideas in theory, you may be thinking that you just don’t have the time to sit down with each prospective client and explain all of these things to them. But, what happens when an upset client leaves a negative comment on your office Facebook page or posts a poor review of your services on Google or Yelp? The public puts stock in online reviews, and even one review detailing unreturned phone calls or surprise bills can be damaging. While it may take up some of your time to manage your client’s expectations, you can consider it an investment in your business that will be sure to produce returns when you have satisfied clients.


Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h

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