Attorney-Client Relationship Part III: Client Control

Litigation is a lot of things: expensive, slow, volatile and unpredictable (FYI, some of the things that from the lawyer’s perspective make it fun).  Clients would love to know from the beginning, What will this cost?, How long will it take?, and most of all: How will it come out? At that first meeting, the lawyer can’t answer any of these questions.  As the case progresses, the lawyer should be able to provide more definition –  but their answers are never without exceptions and disclaimers.  Accordingly, in litigation matters, the relationship between the client and lawyer is always a challenge.

From the lawyer’s perspective what really happens in that first meeting is that the lawyer begins to establish the ground rules of client control and client expectations.  These are the two dynamics that will ultimately determine how the case is resolved, and whether the client is satisfied with that result.

Client control is key.  It provides the lawyer with the ability to negotiate settlement discussions – not just settlement of the entire case, but resolution of the numerous interim issues that arise while the case proceeds.

Lawyers who lack client control end up going to court to fight over interim issues that should not require court involvement.  But because they can’t convince their client that this side issue isn’t worth going to court over, they end up in front of the court arguing about things that make them look unreasonable.  This doesn’t just drive up everyone’s costs, but more critically, it begins to paint a picture in the mind of the judge about which side of the case is unreasonable – and that is huge.  Judge’s don’t like unreasonable clients.

Successful lawyers don’t let themselves get suckered into these types of sideshows.  They maintain  the trust of their clients, and accordingly, the client lets the lawyer make decisions about case strategies.

Closely related to the concept of client control is the concept of client expectations.  If a lawyer promises the moon, the only two possible results in the client’s mind: I got what I deserved, or my lawyer screwed up.  Lawyers who ineffectively manage client expectations rarely have happy clients.

Successful lawyers don’t overpromise.  I always look at cases from the perspective of the other side.  What would I argue if I represented that client?  Where are the weaknesses in my own case?  With that perspective, as the case unfolds, the successful lawyer helps the client understand the risks of their case, and what might be a reasonable resolution – which is rarely (if ever) that they are going to get everything they think they deserve.

Managing clients and their expectations is a big part of handling a case.  The relationship with the client should never be allowed to get too hot, or too cold.  As the case develops, as evidence is revealed, and when the client’s expectations start to stray from reasonableness, clear and direct conversations occur to rein them back in.  These periodic adjustments are central to the ability of the client to maintain trust in the attorney, and to be prepared for a result which, although it may not be all they had hoped for, they can understand and accept.