The key to any relationship is communication; but I would take it even one step further: communicating to manage expectations. When clients retain the services of legal counsel they are almost always in uncharted waters and naturally worried they’ve just dove in with the sharks. Let’s face it, the precipitating events that necessitate forging a relationship with an attorney, especially for victims of personal injury, are stressful and sometimes overwhelming. It is our job to put the client at ease, begin building trust and confidence, and map the path forward. This begins with telling our clients what to expect from the adversarial process and from us.
The first step is compassionate listening. Taking in the client’s story and eliciting the facts and information to build the case. Immediately this builds empathy and rapport. We do a comprehensive intake so we can make sure to get access to all of the independent documentation and data that may be relevant to the case. This isn’t limited to occurrence details, medical history and records and wage loss corroboration, it also encompasses the client’s online footprint. In the digital age, a client’s narrative can be unwittingly rewritten by their social media presence. It is up to us to impress upon our clients the importance of their privacy and the widespread access defendants have to any information put in the public domain. In other words, our clients must know that we are powerless against their own worst enemy—the social media behemoth that they and their “friends” drive. In doing so we manage their expectations of where we can be effective and where they can literally tie our hands.
As the case progresses I find that clients may have widely varied expectations of how often their attorney should communicate with them on the status of the case. My clients know that I am accessible to them when they need me but a reasonable delineation of boundaries is important for all concerned. We may communicate by cell phone, but a midnight call just to catch up is not okay. I am happy to report on major events in the case, but my clients do not expect weekly or monthly reports. I make sure they know that such a level of communication only detracts from vigorously prosecuting their case. Conversely, my clients know that as accessible as I am to them, I expect that in return. If we need an updated medical report or an answer on a discovery request, we expect the same courtesy and respect.
Most personal injury clients have no idea how slowly the wheels of justice grind forward. I find it essential to advise them early and remind them often that, while we are constantly keeping the pressure on the defendant, it may take years before their case is resolved. Communicating that expectation is similar to fronting damaging facts on direct to blunt their impact on cross-examination. At least clients aren’t shocked when they haven’t heard from me in a while; rather they have an image of me working tirelessly in court or at my desk dedicated to their cause maintaining the highest standards, something that aligns with all of our expectations.