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Setting and Maintaining Legal Clients’ Expectations



The smiling man in the wheelchair with his leg in the cast proudly tells daytime television viewers that his attorney got him millions for his car accident.

Every week on prime time, the high-powered corporate litigator meets a client, attempts negotiations, and goes to trial – winning seven-figure verdicts each time – all before her recently manicured nails show a chip.

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Fraud, betrayal, and cover-ups lead to a dramatic courtroom scene that captures the company CEO breaking down on the witness stand. He admits to wrongdoing while audiences watch in a darkened movie theater.

It’s no wonder that legal clients’ expectations are difficult to meet when the law plays starring, unrealistic roles in advertising, television shows, and films. People unfamiliar with the justice system are left believing it moves fast and provides fair outcomes.

Real-life attorneys, though, know better. Large payouts for car accidents are rare – even rarer that the litigation would be complete before the victim recovered from his injuries. No litigator has ever handled a case from start to verdict in two weeks. Attorneys representing clients who were treated unfairly by large corporations recognize that the road to justice is uphill, and the destination may never be reached.

Managing a client’s expectations is a tricky, but wholly necessary, part of being an attorney. Clients who grow unhappy with their attorney are usually not having their expectations met. This is perceived as a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. Without good client relationships, attorneys get fired and never enjoy return clients or lucrative referrals. Simply, successful client expectation management is a key component of legal business development.

So, how do you ensure your client isn’t comparing you to Matlock or Ally McBeal? Follow the steps below to set and maintain a legal client’s expectations (Spoiler: Good communications!)

  1. Ask questions: When first meeting your new client, it can be tempting to focus only on the facts of the matter. Be sure to ask the client how they feel about the situation and what kind of outcome they are expecting. This is also the time to learn about their other expectations. Ask how long they expect the case to last and if there are any obstacles they foresee. Also, find out how often they expect to hear from you and their communications preferences, such as emails, texts, or phone calls.

  2. Be honest: Once you have listened carefully to the client, be sure to honestly address all the potential outcomes – even those that are unfavorable. Clearly outline the timeline and process you expect, based on your experience. Be sure the client knows there are no guarantees. Then, together you can discuss the client’s goals realistically.

  3. Document: However you memorialize the engagement, whether it be a contract or a letter of agreement, be sure to document the following:

  • The agreed-upon price or fee and when payment will be made.
  • Any materials you need from the client to handle the matter.
  • Potential timelines and the expected process.
  • Any goals you agreed upon.
  1. Stay in contact: Whether you have good, bad, or no news, keeping the client updated on the status of their case goes a long way in avoiding confusion, mistrust, and unhappiness. By keeping clients apprised of what is going on you are continually managing their expectations successfully.

Communication and transparency are key to managing a legal client’s expectations. Taking the time to ensure the client understands what is happening builds their trust in you and creates a smooth, productive attorney-client relationship.