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Shotwell the dog, Embroker mascot Embroker Team August 11, 2022 7 min read

Managing Legal Clients’ Changing Expectations

Two women converse, one womenn scratches head in confusion they are discussing legal clients expectations

Dealing with disgruntled clients goes hand-in-hand with practicing law. Maybe they’re upset about the outcome. Or perhaps they became frustrated with the proceedings. Whatever the reason, at some point, every lawyer will encounter difficult clients.

However, being proactive with managing expectations from the onset of a client relationship can go a long way in mitigating issues before they become problematic. Especially since problems that go unresolved and sever a lawyer-client relationship could be detrimental to your reputation or even potentially lead to a legal malpractice suit. Because at the end of the day, every legal malpractice suit begins with a dissatisfied client.

Here’s the thing, even the best legal service imaginable won’t mean anything if your client has unrealistic and unattainable expectations. That’s why, as their lawyer, it’s your job to learn your clients’ needs early on and rein in any expectations that could spell trouble down the road. Especially since legal clients’ expectations have radically changed in recent years and there is an increasing expectation for lawyers to deliver a higher level of service at a faster pace.

Wondering how to start handling those expectations? We’ve put together a few tips to help you manage and meet client expectations.

1) Ask Questions – Lots of Questions

Asking questions early on is crucial to avoid being held to impractical expectations. Use the initial meeting with a client to assess their expectations by asking straightforward questions such as:

  • What exactly do they want you to do for them?
  • What do they expect that service to cost?
  • What is their primary concern?
  • What is their desired outcome?
  • What is their preferred means of communication?
  • What sort of timeline do they have?

Getting a clear understanding of what your client expects will allow you to identify their needs right off the top and whether you’re qualified to address them. After all, if you don’t clearly understand your client’s needs, how can you work towards a favorable outcome?

2) Set the Expectations Early, and Revisit Them Often

Once you understand a client’s case, be candid about the anticipated scope of work. You want to take time to explain how long it may take to resolve, what you will need from the client and any foreseeable complications.

If a client has come to you with unreasonable expectations, explain the risks associated with what they want to achieve. Then, highlight the benefits of taking a different course of action that you recommend, which may mean having a frank discussion about the realities of their legal situation.

You want to start any client relationship off on the right foot, so be transparent and avoid giving them vague promises that have no basis. For example, let’s say that during an initial meeting, a client asks you how much you think they’ll be awarded in damages. You don’t want to rush to tell them what you think they want to hear.

Keep in mind that there are times when it is okay to say you don’t know. While clients come to you for legal expertise, they don’t expect you to know everything right away (and if they do, that’s a red flag). Telling clients that you’ll look into their questions and get back to them as soon as possible with answers is a wise way to avoid setting expectations that you’ll never be able to meet. 

However, managing clients’ expectations requires more than just a set-it-and-forget-it approach. It demands continual work and attention well after the initial meeting. 

As the case unfolds, reassess your client’s perspectives and expectations regarding how things are progressing. Being in tune with your client’s changing emotions and opinions will help keep expectations in check. At the same time, the information you receive from them can be advantageous to make adjustments and improve your representation.

3) Give a Primer on the Legal Process

If this is a client’s first step into the legal world, the fear of the unknown can be, understandably, an overwhelming source of stress and anxiety. 

Taking time to walk clients through the process will help manage their expectations and give them peace of mind while boosting the attorney-client relationship.

Since it’s best to try and avoid your clients being surprised along the way, make sure they understand the legal issues and what will be involved to reach a resolution. Let your clients know what they can expect of you at every stage and what you will also expect of them.

When you explain the process, avoid using legal jargon that will only add more confusion. Explain the process in a way that doesn’t require a law degree to comprehend, and then confirm that they have a clear understanding of what is ahead.

4) Lay Out All of the Possible Outcomes

As a lawyer, you know that there is no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to legal matters. But your client may not have the same outlook, and they’ve likely come to you with an ideal outcome in mind. 

After you’ve explained the process, be upfront about all of the potential outcomes, the good and the bad. You’ll also want to confirm that your client knows what is and is not within your control.

While you can’t promise a particular result for your client, you can assure them that you will work to get them the best possible resolution and be truthful with them – even when the truth isn’t something they want to hear.

5) Communication is Key

No news is good news doesn’t apply where legal matters are concerned. 

In fact, did you know that poor communication is a leading cause of legal malpractice claims? 

That’s why it’s crucial to be proactive and consistent when it comes to communicating with clients. Don’t wait for clients to come to you with feedback. Instead, check in with them regularly and stick to that routine even when there is no new information to report. Providing clients with status reports at set intervals is also a good practice since it gives them a clear picture (and a record) of the work undertaken and the stage of each task.

A tip: if your billing schedule includes interim invoices, sending a status report along with each invoice can help avoid potential conflict by reminding clients of the work associated with their case. 

How quickly you respond to client emails or phone calls is also important. In a survey by Thomson Reuters, 90% of respondents said responsiveness was a “highly important factor” when deciding which law firm to hire, and 44% noted dissatisfaction with their firm’s responsiveness to questions and concerns.

That’s why discussing communication expectations during the initial client meeting is so crucial. Even if tardy response times don’t lead to a legal malpractice suit, it’s certainly not going to do you any favors in winning your client’s trust, repeat business, or referrals. 

While you’re likely handling multiple cases, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that this is the only legal matter your client is (most likely) involved with. The bottom line is that having a client-focused communication approach that includes staying in touch with clients throughout the course of their case will benefit you and your client in the end.

6) Use Technology to Meet (or Exceed) Expectations

So how do you actually go about handling client expectations without compromising on the quality of legal service? 

The answer is to embrace technology. 

Using new technologies that improve research, help organize and automate document drafting will significantly enhance your ability to keep clients informed about their cases and meet, or even exceed, their expectations. Plus, not only will investing in legal tech tools help increase your speed and accuracy but your productivity and profitability will also improve. In fact, according to a report from McKinsey Global Institute, existing technology could automate 23% of a lawyer’s workload. 

What’s more, many clients now expect their attorneys to use the latest legal tech tools available to support their cases. That same Thomson Reuters survey mentioned earlier found that 53% of respondents said that a law firm’s use of technology weighed heavily as a factor during the hiring decision. 

But while clients may expect you to use the latest legal tech tools available, they also want reassurances that the private and sensitive information they provide to you in trust is protected.

Unfortunately, law firms are a favorite target of cybercriminals, with an American Bar Association report finding that 29% of U.S. law firms experienced a security breach. With the increasing prevalence of data breaches, cybersecurity best practices should be top of mind for every law firm, including having a cyber liability insurance policy to minimize the fallout if your law firm experiences a breach.

7) Remember That No Two Clients Are the Same

Every client who comes to you has different needs. Sure, you may have clients with similar legal issues, but their goals, expectations, and personal experiences won’t be identical. That means it’s imperative to gain a thorough understanding of each client’s unique situation so that you can serve them to the best of your ability. In other words: don’t paint every client with the same brush. 

It’s no surprise that when a client comes to you, it’s most often because of a sensitive or emotionally-charged matter. They want someone they can connect with and trust, not a robot void of feelings. And, in turn, you want your client to feel comfortable opening up to you about their situation and how they want it resolved. 

The best lawyer-client relationships are built on trust and a sure-fire to gain that is by making a personal connection with your client. 

While the legal strategy is critical for any case you take on, don’t let it get in the way of your client strategy. Being proactive with managing client expectations will help identify problematic issues before they spiral out of control and enable you to provide the best possible representation for your client.

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