You likely have had a client who said, “I saw that on television” when discussing what to expect in a courtroom or deposition. Legal dramas like USA Network’s Suits and others are a staple of American pop culture, embellishing and dramatizing the legal system for entertainment’s sake. But what happens when your client believes you can “win a no-win situation by rewriting the rules” like Suits’ lead character, Harvey Specter? Believe it or not, these television-based expectations present a risk to an attorney and his or her law firm.
What’s the risk?
The American Bar Association reported four out of five lawyers will get sued for malpractice at some point in their career. Whether viable or not, fighting such claims can be a costly, confusing endeavor. Sometimes they are also completely avoidable. For example, a client comes to you seeking $15,000 in a personal injury case. You believe they will likely see $5,000 at most. Later, a settlement of $8,000 is offered, exceeding your estimate. The client is disappointed and fully prepared to claim negligence. Because you failed to temper the client’s expectations, they believe they were misrepresented.
A client who believes their attorney failed them may file a malpractice lawsuit, triggering an attorney’s lawyer professional liability insurance (LPLI) policy. Any attorney not covered by an LPLI policy would be liable for the costs associated with the lawsuit as well as any business interruption costs.
Managing client expectations
While an LPLI policy will help protect against a malpractice suit, better management of client expectations can help the attorney avoid a lawsuit altogether. There are several ways you can accomplish this:
Communicate: Communication is key from the start. During client intake, attorneys should work to fully understand a client’s expectations, both procedurally and monetarily. If a client expects a case to end quickly with an extremely favorable outcome, it is critical to temper those expectations right away. Consistent communication allows an attorney to clearly explain the realities of the case and gives clients an opportunity to ask questions. This fosters trust in the attorney-client relationship. Having this communication in writing will also assist in the event of a malpractice suit should a client be unhappy with the outcome.
Be Aware: In some cases, a client’s expectations will be too high to bring down. They may ignore their attorney’s boundaries to push their preferred outcome, straining the attorney-client relationship. These situations often lead to conflict and dissatisfaction.
Attorneys should watch for red flags such as client claiming to understand the risks of litigation while continuing to advocate for a lofty outcome. Another concern is when a client questions their attorney’s advice repeatedly. It is crucial that attorneys can recognize these red flags early as they will not be able to deny a client mid-litigation. Those situations will call for an attorney to receive judge approval, which is often a tall ask. Screening clients and clearly understanding their expectations before taking them on is the best way to avoid an issue later on.
Secure Insurance: As mentioned above, an LPLI policy is an essential line of defense for attorney’s and their law firms. An LPLI policy can assist in indemnifying an accused attorney as well as cover business interruption losses when unmanaged client expectations sabotage the relationship. An insurance agent or broker who specializes in insurance for legal professionals can help ensure your LPLI policy is updated and effective.
Managing client expectations is one of the most important skills an attorney can possess. Whether they saw something on television or know an attorney personally, clients are likely to have some preconceived notions, even if you’re not Harvey Specter, Jack McCoy or Perry Mason. Educating clients on the realities of the legal system at the start can help avoid dashed hopes later in your professional relationship. As Harvey Spector might say, don’t try to get lucky with a client’s expectations; make your own luck.