Managing clients’ expectations: why solicitors need to be more careful than ever

In reality though, with a throwaway unrecorded chat here, an overly optimistic costs estimate there: it’s all too easy for even the most experienced solicitor to drift into bad habits.

It does not take too much imagination to see how a failure to provide a client with accurate and realistic advice can lead to trouble. At the very least, the client is more likely to walk away at the end of the matter with a less than rosy view of the firm (a view that’s never been easier to share). If matters have escalated considerably, there is the potential for a formal complaint to the Ombudsman, involvement of the SRA and perhaps even a professional indemnity issue.

Here are the reasons why now more than ever, management of clients’ expectations is so important.

Reputation is everything

According to a new survey by FindLaw, a legal directory owned by Thomson Reuters, 38 per cent of consumers said they would rely on the internet to research and find a lawyer (in 2005, the figure was five per cent). The key point here is research. Although a firm might have the slickest website in the world, this is likely to lose its shine in the eyes of a potential client if further down the Google results page there lurks a series of less than favourable reviews. Solicitors cannot meet clients’ objectives in every instance – and nor can they expect a 5-star review from every client. Nevertheless, effective expectation management helps to avoid the situation where a client feels compelled to say “Mr Bloggs told me everything would be fine and it wasn’t”.

Who is ready to step into your shoes?

Your clients have always had the right to transfer their instructions elsewhere, subject to agreement on costs. A more recent phenomenon (particularly in personal injury) has been the emergence of firms who actively market themselves on their willingness to review a litigant’s ongoing or recently closed file. An off-the-cuff remark at the outset that the claim would be settled in six months but is still ongoing a year later, or a valuation of £5000 and a settlement at £3000: these are the types of scenarios where clients may feel drawn to this type of service.

Inspiring confidence in your insurers?

An attendance with a potential new client has ended, your notebook has been put away and you are guiding the client out of the conference room. It’s at this point the client asks whether the matter will be “sorted” by Christmas. You say you “don’t see why not – all being well”. In fact, there are plenty of good reasons why not but you’ve already mentally moved on to the next matter, you’re running late and you don’t want to leave matters on a less than wholly optimistic note with a client who has not yet signed a retainer.

Providers of professional indemnity insurance for solicitors will be quick to tell you about the number of cases that turn on a missing record of a ‘quick call’ or an incomplete attendance note. Is this a one-off or is it a systemic failure? Even though a subsequent internal complaint about such an exchange might be ironed out, the absence of a record is not going to do you any favours come policy renewal time.

Your clients are looking for a realistic appraisal of the situation they are faced with. Avoid the temptation to give them anything less than that.