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Get It In Writing: Managing Lawyer-Client Expectations

If you have a good general understanding of how your car works, and you have done some repair work yourself, taking your car to be repaired is less daunting than it is for those of us who do not know the difference between a starter and an alternator. The less you know, the more you can be taken advantage of. The best car mechanics are good listeners, thoughtfully use considerable skill and experience to evaluate the problem, explain the problem in understandable terms without overly relying on technical jargon, give a reasonable estimate of the repair costs, keep you informed, and do the work competently and on time. The very best ones look for ways to save you money without sacrificing value. Why should your experience with your lawyer be any different?

After nearly four decades of evaluating thousands of legal malpractice claims, I have the vantage point of knowing that a great many lawyers, even many of those who are great trial lawyers and communicate ideas brilliantly to juries and judges, do not seem to communicate that well with their own clients. It is amazing to me that lawyers as a class still tend to avoid written communication with clients, especially with the ease of doing so now so enhanced by the use of email. The average client, particularly the one that reads crime novels and watches lawyer-fiction on television, has a fragmented and often deeply inaccurate idea of what the lawyer-client relationship should be in real life, and thus may come to the relationship with assumptions and unspoken expectations. The lawyer who does not explore the potential for this sort of early misunderstanding with new clients is making a mistake, in my opinion. Such mistakes can be avoided by having early, written communications between lawyer and client that clearly define the scope of the engagement, and also set both sides’ expectations in a relationship that may go on for months or years to come.