Managing Your Client’s Expectations

Managing your clients' expectations means providing your clients with reasonable assessments of their situations. It involves explaining the scope of your professional relationship with them including what you will do for them and, often, what you will not do for them.

Clients are entitled to expect you will perform legal services for them according to the standards of a competent lawyer. Paragraph 9 of the Commentary to Section 3.1-2 of the BC Code provides that a lawyer should obtain relevant facts and consider the applicable law before advising a client and “should be wary of bold assurances" to the client, especially where the lawyer’s employment may depend on such assurances. Paragraph 3 of the Commentary to Section 3.1-2 provides that the lawyer must possess the requisite knowledge and skill for serving a client before accepting the retainer, and for practicing in that area of law. The principles contained in these rules are inter-related. They require you to assess critically your skill and knowledge with respect to the client’s legal situation. If you know that you are able to act competently, you may be retained, 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 meet these standards and conduct yourself in a competent and ethical manner.

Before entering into the retainer, and throughout the course of the retainer, you must be cognizant of your professional capacity and obligations, as well as unrealistic or unethical expectations your client may have. You may have to advise clients, in clear but polite terms, that you are unable to do what they ask. Explain why such conduct would be inappropriate and indicate to them an appropriate course of action. It is also important to appreciate:

  • when you are required to withdraw from your retainer (See 3.7-7 of the BC Code);
  • when you have the discretion to withdraw from your retainer (See 3.7-23 of the BC Code); 
  • the guidelines as to the manner of withdrawal (See 3.7-8 and 3.7-9 of the BC Code); and
  • the special circumstances surrounding withdrawal from contingent fee agreements (see 3.6-2 of the BC Code).

Managing your client’s expectations starts at the first meeting but does not end there. It is important, particularly in litigation, to let the client know that assumptions and strategies may have to be adjusted 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 clients 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 keep it current. Let your clients know what to expect of you at each stage, and what you expect of them. As mentioned above, you should make clear what you will do for the clients, and what you will not do for them.

If your clients have taken on some tasks, explain what you need from them, and when. You should diarize these items with sufficient time to remind the clients you are expecting things from them on certain dates. 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 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, as they remind your client of the work you have done. You are inviting conflict if you send a bill without having informed your client of your progress on the file, or if you send a large bill at the end of the matter.

One of the most freeing of experiences that a lawyer can have is learning to say "I don't know." Contrary to common belief clients often do not expect you to know everything. Most clients will be quite satisfied with you telling them that you don't know the answer. Rather, you might say that you will look into the matter and get back to them with a clear answer in a timely fashion. In following this practice, you will satisfy your clients that you are thoughtful, and you may find relief from an unrealistic expectation you hold for yourself that you must know immediately the answer to every question clients ask. You might find your practice becomes more enjoyable.

Community Discussion

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My clients tend to be directive and it is important to explain their case and the facts that would support it. It is the lawyer's role to assess the facts against the law, then assess their case against that of the opponent. Clients have strong views, some emotionally based. I try to stick to the facts that can proven and the law as applicable. The law and its application is challenging but so too are some clients. I try to give assurances in a positive and firm way to stay within the law and ethics.

The advice to learn to say "I don't know" is excellent advice. A potential personal injury client can ask in the first meeting what his or her case is likely to settle for, or what amount of damages will likely to be awarded at a trial. The best answer is usually: "I don't know." Some people who almost crawl into the office and look badly off will heal much better and more quickly than anyone anticipates, while others will have serious complications - perhaps from a back surgery - that make matters far more serious than anyone anticipated at the outset. Clients are satisfied to hear the truth at the first meeting and early on - that the lawyer does not know yet - but that as healing evolves and information begins to come in, the lawyer will be able to provide a range.

As a criminal defence lawyer I am wary of  unrealistic client expectations or spontaneous explanations without Crown disclosure and likewise avoid giving fee estimates until both myself and the client both understand the substance of the Crown's case.

I think the that the best approach to managing a client's expectations is to be clear.  If more information is needed the client needs to be told that. B may happen instead of A.  Be clear about expectations and outcomes.  Give the client documents and updated reports to show where the file is at.