One of my earliest posts on this blog was about knowing when you've won. However, if you don't know
how you want something to end, then you don't know how to begin - and neither may your lawyer and the seeds of a bad attorney-client relationship are sown. In other words every case needs to have clear goals.
One of the first questions I ask any potential client is "what do you want to happen?" And then we talk about what it would take to get there and develop a plan to do so. And this is important because it allows the client to understand what has to be done in their case and allows them to monitor progress.
Clients don't see 99% of what we do. As a result, they think we do nothing (and some lawyers do nothing, but I'll save that for another post). But if everyone is on the same page and understands the goals as well as what it takes to get there (tangible and intangible), then intelligent discussions about where things stand can be had and intelligent decisions can be made - and many disappointments and disagreements avoided.
If this sounds like a lawyerly description of simple communication, it is. But as lawyers, especially trial lawyers - who may be very effective at communicating with judges, jurors, and other lawyers- we often aren't worth a damn at keeping the most important party in the room in the know - our own clients. While I'm not qualified to put the bar on the couch, I will haphazard a guess that this tendency comes from the same place as most lawyers' divorces - narcissism.
Egos aside, there is a fundamental difference between a goal and a promise. As Yogi Berra said, "predicting is hard, especially when it's about the future." Lawyers who over-promise convert goals into expectations and may be setting their clients up for disappointment and themselves for a disagreement. Worse is the client who thinks everything is going along fine towards the predicted result until the last moment when the lawyer gives bad news and bad choices that have to be acted upon immediately. Sometimes quick descisions have to be made, but surprises that involve jail time are often about as welcome as ants at a picnic.
Open lines of communication, timely responses to electronic messages, phone calls, and questions can help avoid rude surprises. But most importantly, a mutual understanding of the goals of the representation from the beginning are the foundation upon which all later communication is built. The only thing a lawyer can ethically promise is hard work and to keep the client informed. Whether the client wants to be informed, is, however, another matter.