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JW Way Fundamental #3: Clarify and Manage Expectations
"Establish mutually agreeable expectation as to the time, expense, and goals of every engagement. Let people know what to expect and when. Ensure clarity by reviewing goals, action items, responsibilities, and dues dates to ensure expectations are understood."

A hunter in Africa sets out to capture a monkey. The hunter places a banana in a small jar at the base of a tree. The monkey puts its hand in the jar and tries to remove the banana, but the jar is designed such that as long as the monkey is holding onto the banana, he cannot remove his hand. The monkey can only escape by releasing the banana. Believe it or not, the monkey refuses to let go of the banana, and he is trapped when the hunter returns.

Clients aren’t always so different from the monkey in this story. They may realize that they should let go of the banana, but they can hold onto unrealistic expectations out of ignorance, fear, and/or anger. It is our job to protect our clients by managing their expectations early and often, especially when it comes to bad news. Sometimes, we need to convince them to release the proverbial banana before it’s too late.

Because the goal is always to have a happy client and a paid bill, properly managing expectations during each representation - and at each stage of a representation - is critical. One useful mantra we’ve all heard is to “under promise and over deliver.” This applies well to time, money, and expectations.  

If clients are told to expect something will take a long time, we won’t disappoint them if what’s promised occurs in that time. We can also please them by getting work product or other things to them before we promised them.  If clients ask how much something will cost, it’s wise to provide a high and low estimate of what the fees may be.  If clients think they have a great case, it’s wise to relay all the weaknesses of their position and everything out of their and our control that may not go their way.  If any of these bad things happen, they’re not surprised.  If they don’t happen, most clients will appreciate how well things went.  Happy client.  Paid bill.

Practicing the above with each client and in every representation can go a long way.


About the Authors:  Michael B. Dvoren is a partner and intellectual property attorney at Jaburg Wilk, where he assists clients with various intellectual property matters. He has helped numerous clients navigate the complexities of copyright law in litigation, pre-litigation disputes, and transactions.

Jeffrey Silence is an employment law attorney and partner at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. He assists clients with employment law issues including wage and hour and compliance with federal and state labor laws.