Clients come in all shapes and sizes. Big business, SME, private client, Not for Profit and Trustees. The common denominator with them all: People.
It is axiomatic that if you can manage this dynamic then the practice of law is much more straightforward and ipso facto profitable.
Get it wrong and you are likely to be chewed up and spat out pretty damn quick.
At the inception of a new client relationship, taking over from a colleague half way through an existing case, or dealing with a commercial client, where you are on the nth instruction, you need, very quickly, to assimilate a great deal of technical information before advising the client or completing on a transaction. But how much time do you spend considering and properly understanding the client’s expectations?
Oh sure, the exigencies of the case will flush things out – often with a few hidden surprises. You know the score; you get to find out the *real* reason why the action is being pursued or defended; why a company is being bought or sold; or any manner of legal transaction.
However, it is critically important that you not only scope the job but you also spend meaningful time on to fully understand your client’s drivers for instructing you.
It may sound disingenuous but don’t always trust to your instincts and accept what the client says at the first meeting. Your first blush impressions may be right but treat everything that is said with a fairly thin veneer.
My stress test would include some of the following questions:
- What is the reason for bringing this claim?
- Is that the only reason?
- Would you be comfortable giving evidence on oath?
- Have you taken advice already?
- Ask the foregoing questions more than once – in fact don’t be afraid to ask any of these questions more than once if you feel uncomfortable or unsettled by any of the answers.
- What would a successful outcome look like?
- If you were not able to achieve that outcome then what would be a palatable alternative?
- Have you tried to resolve your difficulties already?
- What would happen if you chose not to pursue the Defendant?
- Has the board sanctioned the action?
- Does your wife/husband understand the implications of bringing these proceedings and losing [and yes before you ask I would have raised the issue of After the Event Insurance]?
- How much are you willing to commit to the claim?
- Do you understand that you could lose all of the money spent on the case and also end up paying the other side? I would often describe this as the Double-Whammy of litigation.
- Do you wish to preserve some sort of relationship or is it completely irreconcilable?
- What is your bottom line for negotiation purposes?
- Are you asking me what I would do if it were my money? [The answer to this was invariably that I would think twice before proceeding. I don’t think that ever dissuaded a client from proceeding but at least it showed by avowed commitment to a commercial solution and not always one dictated by hard headed litigators where the process would become acrimonious from minute one and the sides further driven apart].
Of course there is more to managing expectations than making your life easier. It also means getting your bills paid a damn site quicker – heck even on time.
Law firms tend to forget that the client’s expectations apropos billing will be tempered to a greater extent than is perhaps appreciated by the outcome at any given moment. That is why it is so important to over deliver and under promise.
I know at this point there might be some finger wagging but very few lawyers see it from the client’s perspective when it comes to billing. My experience is that if your client feels you have added value, moved the transaction substantially or got a good interim result that they are much more likely to pay and settle early. It only needs a little slippage and the clients quid pro quo is to hold on to their money as some mild retributive sanction for the perceived problem.
If you had managed their expectations a little better than you would have made it expressly clear that payment was due irrespective and only where there was a legitimate complaint would it be in order to withhold payment.
Remember clients come to you and they expect you to meet their expectations. Before you sell yourself down the river spend some time fully bottoming out what these actually are and make sure you can satisfy them.
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