Controlling Client Expectations: A Core Trial Lawyer Skill

Controlling Client Expectations: A Core Trial Lawyer Skill

In many markets, legal advertising nearly saturates the airwaves.  In an overcrowded market, competitors urge consumers to hire a “pitbull.”  Not surprisingly, many potential clients walk in agitated clientwith inflated expectations about the outcome of their potential case.  Getting those expectations under control is one of the most important client-relation tasks you will face.

Clients with unrealistic expectations can kill your practice. They will:

  • Walk away from reasonable settlement offers.
  • Threaten to sue you for malpractice for failing to achieve their pipe dreams.
  • Berate you for not being aggressive enough or even accuse you of being “in cahoots” with the other side.
  • Claim you told them their case was worth millions.

Such individuals not only threaten your practice, they can threaten your health and life.  If that scares you (and it should), consider taking the following steps.

1. Don’t let them in your practice in the first place

unhappy lawyerTake a hard look at your intake process.  Is it designed to spot potential issues like multiple past claims and lawsuits?  Has the client failed to file tax returns?  You need to establish minimum intake criteria and stick to them.  You should always ask a potential client what he or she expects to gain from the representation.  If it is wild-eyed, just remember you are going to spend the rest of the case beating down those expectations.  Is this how you want to spend your precious time?

2. “Front end load” your case

In a prior article, I suggested doing the bulk of your case preparation before filing (read Scripting A Trial: Part 1).  The logic of that approach is to keep your opponent on the defensive, armed with the facts you’ve unearthed through extensive investigation.  The additional rationale for taking your time before filing is to check out your client’s claims.  By no means am I advocating sitting on a good case but resist the urge to immediately file suit unless you’re up against a statute of limitations. Check your client out.  You have a wealth of information at your disposal (e.g. social-media profiles that betray the client’s claims of injuries or restricted abilities.)

3. Keep settlement and verdict statistics

There are a variety of verdict and settlement compilation and databases out there.  Some local bar-association newsletters publish recent verdicts.  You must be dedicated to compiling information specific to your practice area.  You’ve got to be armed to respond when your soft-tissue-injury-minimal-impact-collision client tells you he expects no less than high six figures or else he’s going to trial.

4. Conduct a focus group

Sometimes even statistics won’t do.  Your client may still push bac’s.  The beauty of a focus group is that it can get the most entrenched client to have second thoughts, particularly if the verdict could put the client in danger of a reduced recovery or even paying the other sides’ attorneys’ fees in the event of an offer of judgment, a proposal for settlement or similar fee-shifting law.  If possible, incorporate a videotaped examination of your client in the focus group exercise.  The focus group members need to see how your client presents as a witness, body language included.

GlanceCharts5. Make the client put some “skin in the game”

One of the byproducts of too many lawyer ads is the consumer sense that litigation is a no-risk proposition in which the lawyer bears all the downside liability.  If the case isn’t that clear cut or if you foresee high maintenance issues, seriously consider requiring the client to front some or all of the costs.  When the client has a financial stake in the case, he or she may take the economic realities more seriously.

The reality, trial lawyering is a service business.  Unrealistic and difficult people come with the territory.  While they will always be around, you have the power to determine whether they will rule your life.

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