'Exceeding' expectations not always the best plan

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Published on 10/22/07

It has become a cliché that success is defined by doing more than anyone rationally can possibly do. "Giving 120 percent" or "working a 25-hour day" are examples of this kind of mindset.

Lawyers are particularly prone to such thinking, given their natural inclination toward recognition and accomplishment. But when it comes to law as a business, I believe we need to ask ourselves whether exceeding expectations is possible — or even desirable.

Satisfying a client is the minimum threshold of a legal services relationship. If the lawyer does not accomplish the results that the client wants and expects (provided that both sides define those results in the engagement agreement), the client will leave for good.

However, many lawyers (and clients) believe that exceeding expectations is the standard by which legal service providers should be judged. This is obviously a level of performance that goes beyond mere satisfaction, but the nature and degree of "exceeding" can be hard to define.

Client expectations may have originally been set too low, and the lawyer did not explain at the state of the engagement what kind of performance was reasonable for the client to expect. In this sense, "exceeding expectations" represents a communications failure by the lawyer that amounts almost to deceit —one that is simply playing with fire. And, on the other hand, if client expectations are too high, the lawyer will not be able to satisfy the client.

Abraham Lincoln, a very shrewd lawyer, observed that you can't fool all of the people all of the time. When clients realize they are being fooled, their reaction is often anger. And a law firm with angry clients is one doomed to failure. It's far better to be open and honest about real objectives and to work as a team with clients to pursue them.

The other dilemma created by exceeding client expectations is that, human nature being what it is, clients will expect even greater exertion an achievement next time. At some point it becomes impossible to continually exceed what clients want —the best you can do is meet expectations. It moves the client relationship in a backward direction, likely creating a degree of dissatisfaction on both sides that will ultimately end the association.

Misunderstanding at the time of the initial engagement agreement is a consistent communication problem. If both sides don't agree up front about what the engagement is to achieve, the danger exists that the client will come to believe that the lawyer hasn't achieved and never understood the desired results —making for an unpaid bill and possible malpractice suit.

From the very start, when drafting the engagement letter, focus your communication on understanding the intent and desires and wants of the client. If the two are in harmony, and the client understands what to expect, there is little likelihood of a problem.

Going through this process of detailing and negotiating to prepare the engagement letter enables everyone to avoid unrealistic expectations.

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