What Did You Expect?


Attorney Craig Tucker* knew immediately that he was going to have problems with his new client. The client slipped on a few fallen grapes in the produce section of a large grocery store.  She was in her late 30s and suffered only minor injuries.  Her treatment was limited to chiropractic care.  Tucker knew after the initial meeting that her case would be worth a few thousand dollars.

Unfortunately, the client had very different ideas.  She had heard about huge verdicts in slip and fall cases.  She knew she had been injured, and it was the grocery store’s fault.  This was her winning lottery ticket.

In preliminary conversations, Tucker tried to gently suggest that the case might not be worth as much as the client believed.  These attempts were completely unsuccessful.  His client either continued talking about her million-dollar settlement as if she hadn’t heard him or she angrily insisted that he needed to get her every penny she deserved.  Tucker decided that it was pointless to try to change her mind.  Hopefully, with some time, she would come around and understand the modest value of her case.

When it was time to put together a settlement package, the client had not budged.  She believed her case was worth $1,000,000, and she would not consider anything less.  Tucker knew this demand was unreasonable, but he was frustrated with the client and not interested in having another conversation where she refused to listen.  It just seemed easier to do what the client wanted, so Tucker put together a demand for $1,000,000.  He knew the insurance company would counter with something much lower.  That lower offer might get the client’s attention and cause her to take a more rational position.

What Tucker didn’t know was that the client was spending money at an alarming rate.  She took out several new credit cards and quickly maxed them out purchasing clothing, jewelry, electronics, and furniture.  The client also borrowed $200,000 to buy a new RV.

Tucker wanted to avoid dealing with this problem client, so his assistant ended up handling most of the communications.  The assistant knew about the out-of-control spending, but she wasn’t sure what, if anything, she should do.  She knew Tucker was under a lot of stress, and she wanted to protect him from the situation.

Of course, the client did not reduce her demand (she could not afford to do so), and no settlement could be reached.  There was a calendaring mix-up when the time came for Tucker to file suit, and he missed the statute of limitations.

He was now facing a malpractice claim.  Although the amount of the claim should have been a few thousand dollars (the amount the client should reasonably have expected to recover), Tucker was now the one facing a $1,000,000 demand.  The client was as insistent as ever that she was entitled to a huge recovery and her proof was Tucker’s own settlement package.

Managing client expectations can be a difficult and uncomfortable task.  Clients may have wildly unrealistic expectations about what you can do to help them, how much their claim is worth, and how much time it will take to achieve the desired outcome.  It is critical to have a direct and honest conversation with your clients directly about their goals and to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Consider asking an open-ended question like “A year from now, where would you like to be?”  Then, really listen to what the client has to say.  It might be having a case dismissed, having a certain amount of money in hand, or having a deal completed.  It might be something else that you never would have anticipated.  Asking the question gives the client a chance to really think about what he or she wants to achieve, which is far more valuable than the lawyer giving a monologue about his ability to crush the opponent.  Once you have this information, you can break it down into specific objectives and discuss whether each one is reasonable and cost-effective.

Craig Tucker’s difficult client controlled the relationship because Tucker avoided the tough conversation and did not firmly set expectations for the case.  He could have given her a written claim evaluation and settlement recommendation.  He could have refused to make a settlement offer he knew to be unreasonable.  He could have encouraged his staff to share concerns so he could react before things spiraled out of control.  If it was ultimately not possible to reach an agreement with the client about the value of the case, he could have timely terminated the representation.  Any of those actions is better than ignoring a bad situation and hoping it will go away.

*Names and other identifying details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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7 comments on “What Did You Expect?

  • I can understand the attorney’s willingness to take the case with the hope that the client would become more reasonable after she saw the chasm between her expectations and the insurer’s settlement offer. The attorney should have done a better job of trying to temper her unreasonableness beforehand (or pass on the case) but sometimes people don’t know that their expectations are unreasonable until you get waist deep in a case. The real problem is when the client started spending her expected recovery. At that point she couldn’t accept a lesser number. It was no longer about her expectations or desires but because she now owes that money to somebody else.

    • Thanks for your comment Adam. I completely agree with your assessment. Once the client started spending money, there was no way to turn the situation around. Communication skills (both explaining AND listening) are critical for recognizing and avoiding this type of situation.

  • When I was just starting out as a lawyer I had the same type of situation. When I realized that the client and I could not agree what a fair settlement would be I ended up making a motion to withdraw from the case. Thankfully the judge allowed me to withdraw. The client also felt her case was worth a million dollars. I was thankful as the case dragged on for four years and the client went through multiple attorneys. When you are just starting out you want to hang on to every client, but I learned very quickly that you sometimes can’t take on certain clients.

    • Carol, you hit the nail on the head. When you are just starting out you want to hang on to every client, but I learned very quickly that you sometimes can’t take on certain clients. This is truly where young (and not so young) lawyers get in trouble. As hard as it is, if you look at cases with desperation and dollar signs in your eyes, you inevitably will make poor business decisions and possibly create a scenario where you are grieved, reprimanded or even lose your license to practice law.

  • (This is a re-post from my reply on LinkedIn.com.)

    A timely letter is always called for.

    I had a nut-job client [ed. note -- beware clients who think they are smarter than everyone else, including the judge] who complained about attorneys’ fees after the client settled the case. The case settled for $650,000. I had sent the (former) client a letter more than 6 months earlier stating that the client’s liability was approximately $635,000. The letter also explained how I came to this conclusion. Producing this letter at the first whiff of a complaint promptly ended the former client’s threats to bring a malpractice suit.

    Admittedly I was lucky that the client’s settlement was reasonable (the original demand was $20,000,000). You can’t stop a frivolous suit or counterclaim from a former client, but you sure can beat one by DOCUMENTING YOUR ADVICE.

    • Unfortunately, lawyers have to always be on the defensive, even with happy clients because even happy clients can turn. Documenting everything is imperative. Thank you for sharing such a great example of how to do it right!

    • That is a great story, Brad. Thanks for sharing. In my five years at Lawyers Mutual, I have seen over and over again how important documentation is for risk management. For example, we were repeatedly seeing real estate claims alleging that the attorney failed to advise the client to obtain a survey before closing. That claim can be easily avoided with a paragraph in the attorney’s engagement letter stating, “I recommend that you get a survey. If you are declining to do so, sign here.” The same is true in every practice area. Clients can mis-remember or choose to forget information provided orally. It then becomes a “he said, she said” situation in litigation. A follow-up letter confirming your advice provides great protection from potential claims.

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