Part of my fee agreement explains how my fee in each case is based in part on a variety of considerations, one of which is the expectations of the client. Many of the other listed factors, like the urgency of the matter and the necessity of declining other work, once seemed far more important to me. Over time, they have come to pale in comparison with client expectations.
For the client who wants to walk, beating the main charge but being convicted of a lesser is a massive disappointment. It doesn’t matter if they’re avoiding a murder conviction in favor of a lesser charge or just beating the part of the DUI charge that would have made it a felony. Any conviction is a failure.
It’s the same at sentencing. Anything less than the lowest possible number is a loss. A significantly mitigated sentence is a disappointment if it could’ve been more mitigated.
I do my best to ensure that expectations don’t affect my performance, as every client should get the same quality of representation. Expectations alter the attorney-client relationship not in terms of quality, but in terms of quantity and a number of intangibles.
High expectations lead to high call volumes and extra work maintaining the relationship. These are never hands-off clients. It’s usually not hard to understand why.
All sorts of innocent people get caught up in the system. All sorts of guilty people are over-charged. The day that I start expecting the wrongfully accused to sing my praises for getting them probation instead of prison is the day I need to reexamine my priorities. I’ll quit before I start expecting drug possession clients to laud the system that sends them away for six years instead of ten.
Unfortunately, understanding a client’s expectations and dealing with them are very different animals. I would like to think that my threshold for having people pissed off at me is quite high, but I’m still human. It sucks being attacked by the people I’m trying to help. It sucks being reminded about the stakes over and over when I’m already doing my best.
Great expectations frequently lead to heartache, and when the client and his or her family are genuinely good people, it only gets harder. I am the face of the system for many of them. They go off about the system’s many flaws, and I am stuck listening. With suspicion, they ask how I can deal with it day in and day out.
I could explain to them that the system is unfair and that it gets it wrong more often that they’d think. I could tell them it could’ve been much worse and that I do it not because I get the perfect result every time but because I strive to get the best possible result given the circumstances. It’s rarely the time or place for me to play teacher. I usually just listen. Inside, I mostly agree.
The angry client rant is tough. They hate the lying cops, the apathetic courts, and the prosecutors desperate to win. In their case. They want to change they system. In their case. Often, the toughest part about the rant is knowing that, most of the time, their eyes would gloss over and they’d quit paying attention if they were hearing the same thing from someone else with just as much reason to complain. It doesn’t make them any less justified, though it does make it harder to hear. Over and over again.
Many clients think that hiring the right lawyer means that everything turns out okay. It’s hard for people to understand that they’re paying for professional services, not a specific result. I wish I could promise them exactly what they want, but this is the real world. The same page of the representation agreement that mentions the fee may take into account their expectations also tells them that I make no guarantees about the outcome.
In a vacuum, expectations wouldn’t matter. In our system, they are the tip of an iceberg of work and difficult emotions. This isn’t an easy job, and they’re an unavoidable part that almost never makes it any easier.