Oct. 17, 2017 (From State Bar of Wisconsin ) – A good friend of mine described his first jury trial – an OWI second offense of 30 years ago – as a “nightmare.”
But it didn’t begin that way. He had convinced the court to exclude the blood alcohol test results. There was minimal poor driving. The client had performed well in most of the field tests, and his testimony had been smooth.
The jury returned with a verdict following a very short deliberation. The new lawyer turned to his client and whispered: “We got this.” He and his now confident client stood, and both listened in horror as the clerk curtly announced two guilty verdicts. When my friend sheepishly turned to face his client, no words were necessary. The shell-shocked glare of an over-promised client said it all.
Later, as the judge was thanking the jury for their service, a juror wondered aloud why the lawyers did not tell them that the defendant “blew a 0.15.” Apparently, this information had been mistakenly provided to the jury in an unrelated document. A second trial resulted in a hung jury, and the case was dismissed. Still, my friend describes this as one of the more cringe-worthy moments of his career. Above all, he refers to it as a hard lesson well learned.
Managing a client’s expectations may be one of the most important tasks litigation attorneys have. Most of us deal with client expectations on a regular basis, and many of us have the battle scars to prove it.
While we all possess a lawyer’s intuition that nothing good can ever come from ignoring unrealistic client expectations, sometimes we just don’t see it. When that happens, and the client’s heightened expectations collide with a contrary and harsh reality, the attorney/client relationship can be tested.
One thing is certain: The failure to manage a client’s expectations is always the fault of the lawyer.
My experience is that much of this task can be accomplished at the initial client conference. However, managing a client’s expectations does not stop there. It must continue throughout the matter and up to conclusion.
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