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Know the "What-If's"

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Manage client expectations by Maria Crimi Speth

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."

This JW Way fundamental is often a challenge for me because I have a personality trait that normally serves me well, but also creates tension with this fundamental.  That trait is my rose-colored glasses.  I think everything is going to take less time and turn out exactly as planned.  So, I must consciously remove my glasses for at least long enough to consider and discuss with the client the realistic time, expense and outcome, as well as the things that might not go as planned.

The key to mastering this fundamental is to fully embody another fundamental – walk in your client’s shoes.  If you were the client, you would want to know how much the work will cost, how much time it will take, and what outcome to expect.   Sure, it’s great to have a positive outlook, but it is also important to know the “what-ifs.”    This is easier in some engagements than in others.  If it is a transactional matter on a flat-fee basis or a one-time consult, we know exactly what the time and expense will be and explaining that to the client is very straight forward.  The only trick for this type of communication is being careful to not assume what we think the client knows.  If we listen carefully to our clients, we learn the knowledge base of the average client and we avoid terms, phrases and acronyms that they are not likely to understand.   If the matter is a complicated transaction or a litigation, this communication becomes much more complicated and requires ranges, estimates and alternatives.   It also calls for an explanation of the process. 

This fundamental should be practiced by virtually everyone in the firm, not just attorneys.  For example, our receptionists typically let the clients know whether they will be transferred to voice mail, an assistant, or the attorney.  Assistants should tell clients whether they will pay for the first meeting and what the hourly rate is because some clients assume there is a free initial consultation.  Regardless of your role, when communicating with clients or potential clients, consider what you would want to know if you were them.  Consider what it feels like when you are the client and your service-provider surprises you with charges you did not expect or completes their work later than you expected. 

Our goal is to exceed our client’s expectations and we can only do that if we give the client realistic expectations every step of the way.


About the Author: Maria Crimi Speth is a shareholder and intellectual property attorney at Jaburg Wilk. She is the department head of the intellectual property group and has expertise in copyright law, trademark law, and Internet law. She focuses on litigation involving intellectual property rights and First Amendment rights. Ms. Speth is the author of the book,Protect Your Writings: A Legal Guide for Authors.