Managing Your Client’s Expectations
One way of managing your client’s expectations is to provide your client with a reasonable assessment of their situation. You should explain the scope of your professional relationship and what they can expect from you. Your client is entitled to assume that you have the ability and capacity to deal adequately with all legal matters to be undertaken on their behalf.
Paragraph 9 of the commentary to rule 3.1-2 of the Code of Conduct provides that a lawyer “should be wary of providing unreasonable or over-confident assurances, especially where the lawyer’s employment or retainer may depend upon advising in a particular way." Similarly, paragraph 5 of the commentary to rule 3.1-2 provides that the lawyer must feel honestly confident that he possesses the requisite knowledge and skill for serving a client before accepting the retainer, and for practising in that area of law. The principles contained in these rules are interrelated. They require you to critically assess your skill and knowledge, with respect to the client’s legal situation. If you are satisfied that you are able to act competently, then obtain the relevant facts, consider those facts in light of the law, and advise the client in a measured fashion. A client has the right to expect that you will adhere to these standards, and conduct yourself in a competent and ethical manner. You should always keep the definition of a “competent lawyer” at rule 3.1-1 of the Code of Conduct in mind when deciding whether you will take a file.
Before entering the retainer, and throughout the course of the retainer, you must be cognizant of your professional capacity and obligations, as well as any unrealistic or unethical expectations your client may have. You may have to advise the client, in clear but polite terms, that you are unable to do what they ask. Explain why such conduct is inappropriate and direct them to an appropriate course of action. It is also important for you to appreciate:
when you are required to withdraw from your retainer (See rule 3.7-7 of the Code of Conduct);
when you have the discretion to withdraw from your retainer (See rule 3.7-2 of the Code of Conduct; and
the guidelines as to the manner of withdrawal from a retainer (See rule 3.7-8 of the Code of Conduct).
Managing your client’s expectations starts at the first meeting, but it doesn’t end there. It is important, particularly in litigation, to let the client know that assumptions and strategies may have to be adjusted as the file progresses in light of changing circumstances. It is a good idea to map out a plan for dealing with your client’s needs, especially in litigation. Give your client information about the legal process and the plan for advancing their cause. It is wise to provide a timeline of events (e.g., interviews, pleadings, examinations for discovery, settlement discussions, pre-hearings, trial, etc.), and to keep it current. Let your client know what to expect of you at each stage, and what you expect of them.
If your client has decided to take on certain tasks, explain what you need from them, and when you need it. You should diarize these items with sufficient time to remind the client that you are expecting something from them on a certain date. Always leave enough time in client meetings to explain the ongoing proceedings, and their purpose.
Provide your client with a copy of new material as it is generated, as well as periodic status reports. This allows the client to see that work is being done. It is also a good idea to send interim bills because this reminds your client that you have been working on their file. You are inviting conflict if you send a final bill without having informed your client of your progress on the file.
It is very freeing for a lawyer to learn to say "I don't know” to a client. Contrary to common belief, the client most often does not expect you to know everything. Most clients will be quite satisfied with you for telling them that you do not immediately know the answer to a question. Rather, you might say that you will look into the matter and get a clear, concise answer and get back to them with that answer in a timely fashion. In practising this you will not only satisfy the most cynical of clients that you are focused on their file, but you will also find the pressure of being expected to know everything has lifted considerably. This will inevitably lead to a more fulfilling practice environment.