By Kaitlyn Kiernan
Law360, New York (November 19, 2014, 5:30 PM ET) — Managing a client’s expectations can pay tremendous dividends in the form of additional business and continuing relations, whether it’s your first time working with a client or your 20th, experts agree, and a few extra steps can make the difference between a satisfying transaction and a disappointing one.
From establishing communication expectations to being realistic about the likelihood of success, there are a number of ways to keep clients coming back to you for their future legal needs.
“Every transaction with every client should start with an open and transparent conversation,” David Skinner, a legal consultant with Gimbal Canada Inc., said. “Even if you’ve worked with a client many times in the past, they might have different expectations for different cases.”
Here, attorneys share with Law360 eight tips for managing client expectations.
The first step is to determine what the client wants to see happen in the case and how it expects the attorney relationship to work.
“That requires asking the client directly about his/her expectations for a particular matter,” Art Foley, director of client relations at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP, said. “Some common expectation questions would include the business objective, the matter importance, the result desired, deadlines, communication preferences, budget constraints and staffing preferences.”
Once those expectations are established, attorneys can work to meet and exceed them, whether that means lengthy weekend emails, regular budget updates or a cutback on the number of associates on the case.
Make a Game Plan
Next it’s key to walk the client through what will likely happen over the course of the project and your plans to address potential risks or problems.
“It’s important to develop a game plan with the client that spells out strategy and approach and sets out expectations for communication and results,” Andrew Glincher, CEO and managing partner of Nixon Peabody, said.
For Margaret J. Strange, a shareholder in Jackson Lewis PC’s Hartford office, that means walking through a flowchart of all potential “swim lanes” early on.
“One lane may have the client winning it all, another has the client winning some motions but losing others, [and] in the third lane, the case is completely lost,” she said. “Prepare for all possible outcomes, and build contingency plans for each.”
Communicate as Expected
Setting expectations about how updates will be communicated, and how often, isn’t enough, attorneys say. You also have to be prepared to follow through.
“Continued proactive communication and quality results build stronger personal and business relationships, which ultimately leads to a high level of trust and transparency between client and attorney,” Brian O’Dell, marketing partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, said.
“Once such a relationship exists, the client will know that you are their best option for a successful outcome,” he said.
While every client hopes for good news, it’s important for attorneys to be realistic about their chances of success.
“Explain all possible options, potential risks and rewards, and likelihood of results and downstream impacts of those results. Don’t sugarcoat it,” Peter J. Chassman, head of the intellectual property group at Winston & Strawn LLP, said. “Blindly beating your chest, without a reality check, will lead to client disappointment.”
Expectations that are grounded in reality may mean fewer frantic phone calls and less stress overall.
“While you present your client’s positive arguments first, it is also important to explain the likely counter-arguments and possible wild cards,” Paula B. Denney, a partner in the Houston office of Jackson Walker LLP, said. “When opposing counsel makes those arguments or the ‘expected unexpected happens,’ you gain credibility.”
Earn Their Trust
However realistic you are, though, the client needs to trust that what you’re giving them is the truth. Otherwise, it might be hard for a client to believe you when you say a development was unexpected or that you gave the case your all.
“The trust we are given by our clients is strengthened through consistency and diminished by inattention — but it requires more to be sustained,” Douglas J. Sorocco, a director and shareholder at Dunlap Codding PC, said.
Sorocco said attorneys must not only listen to clients, but also respond in a way that makes it clear their concerns were heard and understood. Beating deadlines whenever possible doesn’t hurt either, he said.
Maintain Appropriate Distance
Some things are better for the client not to know, so it’s important to draw the line somewhere.
“A practical measure to keep clients from having false expectations is to keep them out of the minutiae,” Joe Marrs, a partner with Johns Marrs Ellis & Hodge, said. “You do not hover over your auto mechanic and second-guess which bolts he should remove first. The overbearing, micromanaging client is the same, and you must keep him out of the garage, figuratively speaking, for his own safety.
“Insist the client trust you to know the best way to get from Point A to Point B and that you will consult him on important decisions. That way, you avoid the client misinterpreting the importance of minor developments and derailing the broader strategy.”
Don’t overlook the cost of your fantastic legal work. While winning a case or sealing a deal can prove to clients you’re able to deliver, that glow of good feeling can easily be overshadowed by a surprisingly large legal bill.
“I’ve found that many attorneys do not spend the time necessary to keep the client informed of changes to projected costs throughout a case,” Christopher S. Frederick, a senior associate at Peckar & Abramson PC, said. “To maintain realistic expectations, consistently revise the litigation budget after the pleading stage, during discovery, and after any major motions.”
“While the result expectation is paramount, you do not want to deliver a great result only to have the client question why it cost so much to obtain,” he said.
It is also important to remember that clients don’t attach expectations only to the case or transaction as a whole, but also to various meetings and milestones along the way.
“If you fail to tell a client the purpose of a meeting, then you leave it up to the client imagination. Is it bad news in a matter? Is the firm merging and dropping the client due to conflicts?” Nathaniel Slavin, a partner and founder of Wicker Park Group, said. “Stating the clear purpose of a call or meeting is a simple but often overlooked tool that can ease stress and manage expectations.”
–Editing by Kat Laskowski and Chris Yates.