This week in Things I Wish I Knew… Joleena Louis talks about how solo attorneys should manage client’s expectations for a more successful representation.
As anyone who litigates knows, sometimes clients are not happy with orders of the court. This is particularly true in family law, where there is not always a fastidious “right or wrong.” In fact, many of the decisions depend on the prerogative of the judge. You just hope you get the right judge on the right day.
As an associate, if I could not get through to a client I would just refer them up the ladder to a partner. It was comforting knowing that I always had a fail-safe. Now that I am a solo attorney, I am both the ladder and the rungs.
The importance of managing client expectations.
One of the most important lessons I have learned transitioning from a boutique law firm to solo practice is to manage client expectations from outset.
Although I never promise a particular outcome (this would be unethical, especially in family law), I ‘ve found that it is particularly important to emphasize to every client that no matter how facially strong our case may be, it is ultimately the judge’s decision. You have to prepare clients for both potential outcomes.
Be brutally honest with the client.
The problem with being honest is that most people do not want to hear it. It goes in one ear and out the other, and this is especially true with clients. They are obviously seeking counsel because they believe they have been wronged in one way or another. Further, I have yet to meet a client who does not believe they have a case. That makes it even more important to lay out the possibility that they may lose.
Managing client expectations is even harder when you have a client who believes they know the law better than the attorney they retained. I have had clients who push a course of action that will obviously be unsuccessful. I have found out that you just have to bite the bullet and tell them they are ultimately wrong.
Prepare a Plan B legal strategy should the outcome be unfavorable.
And in every case, I have a Plan B, just in case we have a particularly unfavorable judge.
But what do you do when your client is crying in the hall outside the courtroom after the judge gives what you believe to be a terrible decision?
- Always remain calm in front of the client.
The first thing to do is remain calm, even if you are not. The representation is not about you. It is about the client. The client will feed off of your energy and if you are amped up and yelling, they will model the behavior and do the same. If you remain calm, then it is easier to calm the client and begin focusing on your Plan B.
- Let the client verbalize their disappointment.
Second, you must let them vent. As lawyers, we must play the role of a chameleon. After an unfavorable decision, the last thing the client wants is their lawyer. They want a psychotherapist. So, that’s what we do.
Most times people understand that there is nothing they can do, but they will feel better if they can get their feelings off their chest.
- Provide the client discreet steps to remedy the situation.
Once they are calm, reiterate that you knew this was a possibility and remind them of the Plan B, if you have one, or what the next steps will be. I find it helpful to give the client a few days to breathe and absorb the outcome. After that time has passed, I set up an appointment to further discuss the situation and work on going forward.
Let’s face it: all cases are not created equally. Further, not all outcomes are going to be what you or the client expects or sometimes, even deserves. If you manage your client’s expectation from the time they sign a retainer agreement, you will mitigate hard feelings.
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Joleena Louis is a matrimonial and family law attorney at Joleena Louis Law, a ﬁrm she founded after leaving a boutique matrimonial ﬁrm in Brooklyn. Joleena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ start-up program in Downtown, New York. Her weekly blog series Things I Wish I Knew… explores her thought process and experiences in her transition from small law ﬁrm employee to successful solo practice entrepreneur.
One thing I have learned in practicing law both as a solo practitioner and in a small firm environment is that you have to keep client expectations realistic. This is especially true when it comes to case value and time frame for resolution. If you “undersell and over deliver”, you will usually have a more “satisfied customer.” Thanks for a great post!
Managing client expectations is a tricky discipline in a small/solo law practice. The small firm lawyer is typically originating AND servicing the business. From a “sales” perspective, the solo lawyer wants to keep the client happy and encourage them to retain (or continue to retain) the firm. Your instinct as a business person (as opposed to counselor) is to please. In that context, it’s hard to paint a bleak picture about a client’s case. It takes fortitude, and a lot of practice at it, to sell well and manage expectations simultaneously. But you are absolutely right that, in the long run, you’ll be more likely to lose a client by setting unrealistic expectations (or not managing expectations at all) and then letting the client down.
Beautifully expressed and absolutely true, ESP in Family Law. It’s never a perfect system, but candor and compassion must go hand in hand. And when a “crazy” judge ignores the law and makes the custodial parent eat say, 10 years of back support, well, all you can do is re-evaluate and strategize. Ish happens. Cheers!