Managing Low Expectations

Client management is invariably part of any lawyer’s repertoire, but one firm in South Carolina took it to the extreme.  Via Jim Calloway :

But one South Carolina law firm has decided to use its web site to make certain their potential clients have realistic expectations about the firm before they even schedule an appointment. Check out the Client Expectations (Realistic or Unrealistic) section of their web page. Some people may be put off by the blunt language with statements like “We do not work on the weekends and do not provide emergency numbers for the weekends” or “Do not think we are perfect.  We make mistakes.”

Blunt.  Honest.  Maybe they thought it best to remove the part about “just send money and leave us alone.”  The lawyers may not be long on client service, but at least they aren’t hiding it from their potential clients.

At a blog called Avoid a Claim, which apparently is favored by lawyers who anticipate a claim, Dan Pinnington writes:

It seems like this firm has made a strategic decision to say “If you are going to a high maintenance client, you’re probably not going to be happy with us and we’re probably not going to be happy with you.” Good on them. They will have happier clients, and they will be happier and less stressed lawyers.

This strikes me as a scorched earth policy toward clients.  The problem with this discussion, aside from the cavalier approach, is that clients generally don’t come to a lawyer asking themselves, how can I interact with this lawyer in a way that makes the lawyer’s life most pleasant.  This has become a recurrent theme lately, with lawyers thinking that clients exist primarily to pay them money and assure them work/life balance.  That the client has a legal problem doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.

Client management is both art and science.  There are some hard realities that impact both lawyer and client, such as the fact that an hour on the phone holding one client’s hand is an hour lost from working on the case of another client.  Serving clients isn’t a matter of catering to their whims and making them think you’re the kindest person on earth, but make them knowledgeable about what the legal system in general, and you as lawyer, can do to achieve their goals, and then providing at least that if not more.

The South Carolina firm that put out its blunt “expectations” page does family law, one of the most miserable practice areas around.  Anxious and angry clients are likely to feel the need to grab hold of someone on a Saturday night when their soon to be ex-spouse calls 27 times in a drunken stupor, complaining of the client’s ancestry.  Even lawyers want some time off on the weekend to play with their kids.  We all get it.

The answer isn’t to say you don’t work weekends, but to manage clients’ understanding of what constitutes an emergency, worthy of disrupting dinner at a nice restaurant with the family.  There are real emergencies that happen at inconvenient times.  Nobody promised that it was convenient to be a lawyer.  Suck it up.  Who else should your client turn to when an emergency happens? 

But the “high maintenance” client is usually a client who has been oversold.  The old adage, undersell and overdeliver, comes into play.  When your clients know that you will contact them immediately upon any news in their case, they won’t call you to ask if there’s anything new.  When your clients know that you return telephone calls as soon as possible, they won’t call 10 times to try to reach you or scream at your receptionist when you’re in court and unavailable. When you don’t make outrageous promises that you can “fix” anything, they won’t become equally outraged when it doesn’t happen.

Ironically, one of the most troublesome ways to deal with clients is to become their best friend.  Clients need lawyers.  If they want companionship, they should get a dog.  It confuses roles when lawyers assume the position of mother, therapist or pet.  Clients often need someone to talk to, to vent, catharsis, during the pendency of a case.  To some extent, lawyers can offer their ear.  But when the ear gets chewed off, we’re appeasing the client but no longer serving him.

Aside from the problem of our not being qualified to offer the comfort or psychological treatment a client needs, we also give away our ability to fulfill a higher function, of providing the hard, detached advice that a lawyer owes a client.  It becomes very difficult to talk a client off the ledge when our relationship is all about handholding. 

The “expectations” page offers some interesting insight into client management, which should benefit both client and lawyer by clarifying our respective roles, explaining how the relationship will be most effective  and providing an honest assessment of what lawyers can do in our service to clients.  But when the “expectations” offer little more than they should not annoy us, it’s time to find a different line of work.  Clients don’t exist to make our lives happier.

Lawyers serve clients.  We do that by being lawyers.  We have no business doing less or promising more, and we help neither the client nor ourselves by pretending otherwise.

30 thoughts on “Managing Low Expectations

  1. John R.

    Some clients deserve everything you can give them, including hand holding and whatnot. Therapy? Let’s put it this way: it’s a lot more likely that a lawyer can be something of a therapist than that a therapist can be something of a lawyer.

    An innocent person wrongly accused is a poor fit with the rest of the world, which is constantly denying their existence. In a lot of ways their lawyer is the only meaningful therapy they can get.

    Best friend? How about only friend?

    I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. You’re right, of course, as a general rule. There are exceptions.

    Prosecutors can afford facile analysis; CDL’s can’t.

  2. SHG

    I can see practice areas that don’t tend to take up weekends, but not family law, and certainly not criminal defense.  I used to tell clients not to get arrested on Fridays and Saturdays.  They never listened.

  3. SHG

    There tends to be three different criminal defense lawyer “types.”  The first is the one in it only for the money.  Nothing more worth discussing. 

    The second is the type that becomes emotionally bound up in his cases.  This can be very dangerous, as the lawyer loses the detachment necessary to do the job.  This type wants to be the therapist and can hold hands all night long.  One can’t suffer the empathetic trauma of the client without losing perspective, and without perspective, we can’t make the hard decisions that need to be made in the client’s best interests.  Clients like this type of lawyer most during the course of the representation.

    The third is the type that is understanding and sympathetic, but never forgets what his job is and what it isn’t.  He will send a client to therapy rather than play therapist.  He will hold hands for a while, until it interferes with his work.  He will be harsh when it’s needed, even if it makes the client unhappy.  He never lets emotion overcome judgment, and never shies away from responsibility even when it’s unpleasant.  Clients like this type of lawyer most after the case is over, as this type is the most effective.

  4. John R.

    Almost all true, even unarguable – up to a point, or as Bennett says, until it isn’t.

    I’ll take issue with one particular thing. For me, the trick has always been precisely to “suffer the empathetic trauma of the client” and keep perspective, or at least regain it sufficiently to do the job.

    If you don’t in some sense become your client you can’t know them. And if you don’t know them your representation of them to others will have unpredictable holes that may bite you in the butt.

    It’s hard work. It defies efforts at pigeon-holing or “typing”.

  5. SHG

    After you become a criminal defense lawyer, let me know how your theory bears out against my experience.

  6. Antonin I. Pribetic

    While typology often leads to stereotyping, in my view, there are two types of clients: those whose expectations are realistic and those whose expectations are are not. It is the lawyer’s responsibility to establish the client’s expectations from the outset. it is not the lawyer’s burden to control, modify, mollify or otherwise pander to the client’s cognitive illusions or to make the client “happy”. A carefully drafted retainer agreement outlining the terms of service normally sets the rules of engagement. For those lawyers who eschew retainer agreements, I offer neither tea nor sympathy. For those clients that refuse to follow my recommendations made in their best interests, I offer the door.

  7. SHG

    The stresses on a client during the course of a criminal defense may be a bit different, requiring more of an ongoing management rather than just the upfront expectations of the retainer.  We are also some constraints that prohibit us from offering the door when they won’t follow recommendations.

  8. John R.

    I’ve done criminal defense, just not exclusively. I tried to get away from it, but it’s hard when it comes your way all the time and there are times it really, really needs to be done. When I undertake to do it I put everything I have into it, if that’s what’s called for.

    Personally I think it’s the most important area of law socially, intellectually and professionally.

    The disdain for it in the profession itself is very disturbing to me. Anyone who wants to call himself a lawyer, if he doesn’t do criminal defense himself, should regard those who do with admiration and gratitude, not disdain.

    In any case, “typing” is dangerous, cause you can run into something that doesn’t fit but there will be an intellectual tendency to force it anyway. Different situations or clients call for different things that might fall outside preset casts.

    Painting with a broad brush can be an aid to understanding, up to a point. Until it isn’t.

  9. Antonin I. Pribetic

    I don’t doubt that the stresses are different and, as I’ve commented here before, criminal charges entail higher risks and stakes for a client. That said, complex civil litigation has its share of byzantine twists and turns and strategy and tactics must change as circumstances dictate.

    I do appreciate that CDLs have greater constraints on withdrawal of services. Up here in curling country, in R. v. Cunningham 2010 SCC 10 (no link included), The Supreme Court of Canada held that where counsel seeks to withdraw sufficiently in advance such that an adjournment is unnecessary, the court should permit withdrawal without requiring counsel to give reasons. Where timing is problematic and defence counsel advises that the requested withdrawal is for ethical reasons, then “the court must accept counsel’s answer at face value and not enquire further so as to avoid trenching on potential issues of solicitor-client privilege” (para. 48). “Ethical reasons” include a request by the client that the lawyer violate ethical obligations or refusal of the accused to accept counsel’s advice “on an important trial issue” (para. 48). The grant of counsel’s request to withdraw for ethical reasons is mandatory (para. 49). Where withdrawal is for non-payment of fees, permission to withdraw is within the court’s discretion. The discretionary factors include: 1. the feasibility of the accused acting pro se, 2. the availability of alternative counsel, e. the impact of delay, 4.the conduct of defence counsel and 5. the procedural history; none of which implicates the lawyer-client relationship and issues of privilege.

  10. SHG

    Yes, John.  Typic is dangerous, because there are exceptions. Keen eye, there.  Perhaps we should try to limit lawyers to those with some high education. Maybe even make them pass a test in the hope that they can spot and handle those exceptions.

  11. ExPat ExLawyer

    Antonin, in a case in the US I’m real familiar with, the attorney pulled the mandatory withdrawal for ethics reasons. Here, the details can be gotten into, with some constraints. It really doesn’t matter much as the judge will clearly assume the worst about the client, or the client will have to agree to allow privileged into loose.

    In the case I’m familiar with, their was no conflict of interest as claimed, just plain old conflict about how much fee should be paid. The judge was as dumb as a bag of hammers and didn’t notice how coincidental it was that the attorney switched from being an associate at a large and prestigious CDL firm the very day the threat of forcible withdrawal was written about to go solo.

    Most problems in the system are a result of judges dumber than bags of hammers.

  12. ExPat ExLawyer

    LOL. I just noticed that on the contact page, these slackwazees advertise office hours of M-Th 9-5, and Friday’s 9-1.

    Are they the most brilliant family law practitioners in the state or what? If not, who the heck would hire them? I wouldn’t. Their website is almost out of The Onion. I hope they are duly humiliated by your expose.

  13. Antonin I. Pribetic

    “A worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea.”-Milan Kundera

  14. John R.

    Damning with faint praise again, Scott? Or just outright facetious? It’s okay, I forgive you.

    High education. Let me analogize to doctors for a minute. Brain surgeons, as you might imagine, lose a lot of their patients; but the rest of the profession doesn’t think of them as losers who couldn’t get a better gig.

    Nothing in my adult life has appalled me so consistently and often as the professional treatment of CDL’s.

    What else explains why there is so much work to be done when we have “too many lawyers”?

    I’m a little off topic. Let me put it this way: if you have to work on a weekend then you have to. Even DA’s do that. Sometimes.

  15. SHG

    It’s too problematic for the US.  Between jurisdictions, locales, even courtrooms, practice varies wildly.  We used to tell a judge we had a conflict with “Mr. Green” and they would let us off the case.  Today, sometimes and not others.  Even ethical conflicts will be tested, so I haven’t a comparative rule to offer.

    But here’s the video anyway, just ‘cuz.

  16. ExPat ExLawyer

    Browsing a bit more on the website of this illustrious firm, I noted the following, at which point needed to fortify my margarita:

    “A consultation with Monet S. Pincus does not create an attorney-client relationship. A consultation with us does not prohibit us from representing a different client in this matter. However, any information that you provide to us will be confidential and will not be revealed to any third party nor will any information that you provide to us be used in any proceeding against your interest. We will shred this intake sheet for you upon request.”

    First off, I think we can all imagine the types of parent who named their offspring “Monet.” Any guess on said attorney’s gender, if any? Hopefully Scott looked this up to ensure it wasn’t some performance art spin.

    Also a question. What’s the general current law on conflicts after a consultation? Knowing the Monet Pincus firm, I imagine the initial consults are pretty short so maybe my concerns are purely theoretical.

  17. SHG

    Regardless of Monet’s disclaimer, I don’t believe she gets to rewrite conflict of interest law to suit the best paying client.

  18. ExPat ExLawyer

    Scott, just saw this. Antonin, thank you for the great Kundera quote. You are excluded from the following. Isn’t Canadian idiot redundant?

    Live a while in Cabo and you will see. I often remark to people what greater commonality I find between Americans and Mexicans vs. Americans and Canadians, despite the similar language with the latter. I think it’s the revolutionary history both the US and Mexico have in common. But Antonin, you are excepted from this broad brush right now.

  19. Antonin I. Pribetic

    My citizenship is Canadian, but I am Croatian by birth and nationality. When my family came to Canada, we couldn’t get into the United States because of our (now former) Yugoslavian communist passports. We didn’t have to climb over any fences, either. It gives me a jaundiced view of patriotism, nationalism, jingoism and Manifest Destiny.

  20. ExPat ExLawyer

    Antonin: I have a colleague who moved to the US eventually from the Ukraine. They didn’t get admitted to the US for several years after their move to Canada because they didn’t have enough income. They did move in the late ’50s and became American success stories.

    You sound like a man any country would welcome. I am very sorry you had this mistreatment.

  21. Mark Bennett

    Clients like the first type of lawyer most before representation begins, as this type says whatever the client wants to hear.

    (I’m surprised that you missed that.)

  22. Sojourner

    Scott, this is not related to your awesome post, but there is a great Malcolm Gladwell article on the twitter revolution (not) in the New Yorker – you probably already know about it, but just in case, wanted to mention it. He’s singing your song.

  23. SHG

    I only wish he included all the pseudo-marketing and self-promotional hyperbole that’s similarly held out as the miracle of social media along with the political foolishness, where so many have lost sight of substance in the shiny glare of technology.

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