A new lawyer's charge is to become an effective lawyer: to produce excellent legal work and to provide client service. The capability to produce excellent legal work is the product of law school; the ability to deliver quality client service is learned outside the structure of case studies. Excellent client service requires, in addition, an understanding of clients' expectations, professional judgment, and client relations skills. Development of each requires time and direction.
Supervising attorneys and clients have various expectations of each other and of junior associate lawyers. Understanding these expectations is a crucial component of successful orientation to the firm; it is also the first step to becoming integrated into the firm. These expectations are reflected in the often unspoken criteria of performance evaluations, including: cost-effective and timely production of work product, effective oral and written communication, practical judgment and sound decision-making, acceptance of responsibility and initiative, client relations skills, team attitude, cooperation, and ability to handle a workload.
The purpose of this article is to give new associate lawyers some practical insight and direction in addressing these expectations and to serve as a ready reference and reminder as experience, responsibilities, and client contacts increase. As new lawyers become responsive to the expectations expressed by supervising attorneys and clients, they can significantly reduce those write-downs, or write-offs, of excess hours that otherwise are expected to occur and do occur.
As associates are assigned more specialized work, fewer opportunities arise for them to handle small transactions or disputes and to spend non-billable time observing experienced firm members as part of their training. Working on projects that come to them only in piecemeal fashion, new associates are faced with difficulties in developing a sense of the client's goals, businesses, and expectations in large matters. For example, these expectations include assumptions that the attorney will:
- understand what the client wants to do;
- communicate progress and status;
- be accessible and return calls promptly;
- use economic sense; and
- understand a corporate law department's expectations.
A new lawyer's immediate clients are supervising attorneys. Focusing consistently on the expectations of supervising attorneys will assist inexperienced associate lawyers in producing the useful work products that supervising attorneys expect and clients are willing to purchase. To meet this expectation, each assigned lawyer must meet another set of expectations that he or she will:
- understand and clarify assignments;
- manage workload, time, and assignments;
- communicate progress and the status of assignments; and
- develop meeting and telephone skills.
As you recognize and address these supervising attorney and client expectations, and some of the unstated underpinnings of effective law practice, you will be able to more rapidly define and refine your work-style and approach to the delivery of client services in this increasingly competitive business and profession.
Law firms are businesses — as well as law practices — that sell professional services to existing and prospective clients. Attracting and maintaining clients requires practical understanding and sensitivity to clients' goals, priorities, and service expectations. When a lawyer considers a client's expectations unimportant, he or she may find that even excellent legal work becomes poor service that the client will refuse to purchase. Several client expectations affect the assignments of junior associates even though most client contact may be indirect. Therefore, Part I introduces client expectations of the lead or supervising attorney and team generally, within some contexts in which they arise.
A client may be unable to assess and rank the quality of legal work among technically competent lawyers.
That same client is, however, an excellent judge of whether he or she is pleased with a lawyer's "service." When a client perceives that technical competence is comparable among lawyers, that client selects the lawyer who makes it clear that he or she is interested in what the client wants to accomplish and will respond with superior professional judgment.
Leave no room for assumptions
Many lawyers frequently make tacit assumptions — consciously or unconsciously — about what clients want or "should want," the importance and relative priority that each client places on these goals, expected response time, and cost. Disasters often result when new lawyers make assumptions about a client's goal and priorities without valid supporting information. As one senior partner, a former naval officer, continually admonishes his firm's associates, "Never assume if you want to make admiral."
For many of you, disasters resulting from haphazard assumptions are within recent memory: recall that one instance — would that it were only one — where your brilliant substantive analysis, built on an unfounded factual assumption, was shelled by an unfeeling professor or, worse, by a smug fellow student in the next aisle. More than your unwarranted assumptions and ego stands to be shattered in the real world; you also jeopardize
Know what your firm stands for
- Your reputation as a thoughtful attorney,
- Your relationship with your supervising attorneys,
- Your firm's relationship with the client, and
- Your relationship with the firm.
When you receive an assignment on a new client matter, try to find out why the client selected an attorney in your firm. Develop a sense of how the firm and the originating attorney define and shape the firm's philosophy and distinguish it from its competitors. What kind of philosophy does the firm have and project? What "products" and services does it have and what are its markets? Examples of various approaches abound. Some firms are dedicated to client relationships and provide full service to their clients. Others specialize in sophisticated transactional business, provide "boutique" services, or serve particular industries. The character of a firm's representation also varies. Some firms assess risks more aggressively than others in the course of client representation.
By the time you have accepted a position with a firm, you ought to be in a pretty fair position to determine the firm's philosophy, major services and "products," and key client markets. In a perfect world, you and the interviewing attorneys would have discussed these points. If, as in most cases, this did not occur, you should spend time becoming familiar with the overall objectives, commitments, and expectations of your firm.
Be aware of client expectations
What are the most common client expectations? How do the supervising attorney and firm team meet them? How do they affect your assignment?
Clients have certain legitimate expectations of their lawyers. The 20 expectations that follow reflect a distillation of those expectations most frequently ex-pressed by clients and observed by their lawyers. While each client may not have all of these expectations, most are shared by clients to some degree. For example, all clients want their attorneys to understand what they want to accomplish and to be accessible but not all clients need their attorneys to serve as a resource.
In addition, the emphasis of a single client's expectations may change from matter to matter. Therefore, a client-directed attorney monitors his or her client's expectations throughout the relationship, even as a single transaction evolves, is closed, and another begins.
Relate these 20 client expectations to your assignments. How do you identify and meet those that are important to a particular client?
Clients expect lawyers to:
- Understand what the client wants to do.
- Explain what is needed from the client.
- Determine the role each lawyer will fill.
- Estimate a timetable, fees, and costs.
- Adjust unrealistic client expectations.
- Determine special handling procedures.
- Communicate progress and status.
- Be accessible and return calls.
- Respond promptly.
- Ask for feedback.
- Use the client's language.
- Coordinate service.
- Understand the client's business.
- Consider the practical aspects.
- Spot related problems.
- Design responsive solutions.
- Use economic sense.
- Serve as a resource.
- Update clients on new legal developments and techniques.
- Understand the expectations of a corporate law department.
A client may express some of these expectations and may only imply others. The client may directly voice a concern about whether a lawyer is familiar enough with the client's industry; that same client may only imply that he or she expects the lawyer to "quarter-back" the pieces of a project that other outside advisors will work on. An attorney may be able to anticipate some client expectations based upon prior dealings with that client. Originating and lead attorneys usually play the most important roles in determining, translating, and then communicating a client's overall expectations to other lawyers (and staff) assigned to that client's matter.
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