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Expectations – whether they’re unclear, significant, unrealistic or lacking entirely, encapsulate the client and lawyer relationship.

Lately, I’ve had such a pleasure being interviewed by almost-newbie-lawyers as they prepare themselves for the most significant signature they will affix to a piece of paper in their careers; the roll of legal practitioners.

We spoke about common issues in practice, how to approach and attempt to overcome issues, ethics, practice management and everything in between.

Out of everything we spoke of, what I came to realise (rather quickly) was how fundamentally ingrained the concept of expectations is in legal practice And, just how important communication is when discussing, setting and managing expectations.

Ok, before you say “Well dah, Michele”, hear me out.

We all talk about setting expectations. But what does that mean, really? How exactly does a client, who may never have seen a lawyer in their life before, articulate (or even know) what their expectations are of the client/lawyer engagement.

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Let’s go back to basics – what does it mean?

expectation” (noun) the feeling of expecting something to happen

This is a fundamental challenge for all lawyers and one of the biggest reasons, in my humble opinion, lawyers often do suffer a bad reputation! Setting and managing expectations involves a lot of communication; beginning, middle and end of engagement with clients.

Think about it, the expectations of clients encompasses everything; costs, timeframes, provision of information (eg evidence to exhibit affidavits), building of rapport and trust, possible outcomes in the legal matter, possible hurdles, the legal process, timeframes or processes the lawyer can and can’t control, what part the client has in each of the steps involved etc etc etc.

When I was being interviewed, I talked about setting expectations not only at the beginning but continuing to discuss expectations throughout and I also pointed out the difference between setting expectations for clients vs setting expectations with clients.

The client should be front and centre of how you approach the matter; they are the reason you are there. Importantly, this is the way we build rapport, trust and openness with the client and these are absolutely essential elements of a healthy lawyer/client relationship. Let’s face it, the client could very well be pooping themselves just being in a law firm and then you’re going to ask them all these penetrating questions because, well, that’s your job. BUT what is also your job is to remember that your client is human, so are you, and you’re there to help them so now you get to help them, help you, help them! Yep. Read that again… I’ll wait. You good? You get me? Awesome!

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Think about the most common complaints that lawyers get from clients; costs, communication, timeliness, responsiveness etc. All of these largely come down to expectations, or perhaps lack thereof!

Think about it yourself. Warning, we’re en route to Oversimplification Highway for the scenic tour. If you bought yourself an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch and you were told it would enable you to take calls and messages from your wrist without having to have your phone on you (umm, cool!), and that was the main reason you wanted it! You outlay a decent amount of money, only to find out that it doesn’t do what you wanted to or you have to pay extra for it or you needed another piece of software or add-on to make it work. You’d be annoyed, right!? Times that feeling by a 100 (maybe more) and you’ve got yourself a displeased client who’s not only paid you money, but often poured their heart out to you about something that’s really hurt them (whether it’s personal or commercial, it’s hurt them). They’re going to feel betrayed and you’re going to have to work ten times as hard to earn their trust back, if they give you the chance.

So, think about expectations and how much they mean to you. Think about setting those expectations with your clients, work with them to make a plan, set out the steps together. Empower your client to feel some “control” over the experience of engaging with you. It may be one of only a few things they can actually control!

Importantly, every client engagement experience teaches you more about how clients develop, approach and articulate their expectations. You learn how seemingly similar people can have different expectations and begin to see common themes, harmonies (among certain types of matters) and it helps you learn more of what to expect when you welcome them to your firm. Your constant learning of the nuances of expectations helps you to read people just that little bit better or adjust easier if their expectations are a little left field!

And, the simplest thing you can do to identify and understand your clients expectations, just ask.

The worst distance between two people is misunderstanding.

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