The subject line of this post is obvious in many ways, but there’s really some depth behind it. In all of our endeavors, we are generally satisfied when we get what we expect. (Well, that may not be true for the pessimists, but this post isn’t about them.)
Therefore it is important to the attorney-client relationship to do your best to make sure that the client has realistic expectations. It may be tempting when the new client is retaining your services to err on the side of "closing the deal," but it is a poor long term plan. When the client predicts an unrealistic result, it is tempting to say "Well, retain us and let’s see" or "Possibly." But be careful. It is appropriate to explain that there are many undertermined facts and/or questions of law. But starting the attorney-client relationship with a client who believes that they are likely to get certain relief when that isn’t that case is going down the wrong path. You can leave the predictions to the psychics. But you can’t leave a new client with a false belief.
Equally important are client expectations about how the attorney-client relationship will be managed. Modern technology allows us to be available to clients around the clock. That might even be acceptable if you have only one really well-paying client (who would have to sleep and have a life of their own.) All of us need down time and all of us have shifting priorities. Our clients need us to be there for them when it is required, but not on every whim. Patricia A. Yevics, Director of Law Office Management for the Maryland State Bar, has a great article entitled "Taming the Beast: Managing Client Expectations in a 24/7 World" in the June 2006 issue of GPSolo magazine. She has great advice on establishing client’s expectations about communications with your office.
Those great folks at PracticePRO have a great feature on dealing with the difficult client. It has four parts, including the brief summary at this link, which will take you to a fourteen page paper on the topic. There are also two extremely useful forms in MS Word format. One is an "administrative" document outlining how the law firm operates, including many topics such as hours of operations, how to make appointments and why you shouldn’t just "walk in" to see your lawyer. The other Word document details billing rates and practices in plain English. (Well, Canadian.) It is hard to overstate how beneficial these documents could be if customized to your practice and given to every client.
Readers of this blog are seeking law practice tips. Well, here’s a huge one. Read all of the information linked about–twice. Schedule a meeting with your staff and discuss how you help your new clients have realistic expectations. With the guidance of the forms noted above, draft handouts that will be given out to every new client in your two largest areas of practice. Implement the policy and set a review date for six months from now.