“I want to sue the board!” “I want Mr. X deposed!” “I want to expose her fraud!” These, and the other statements in the above list of client statements shown in the graphic -- these are NOT goals. This is ranting. And most clients do it when they first call their lawyer up, even the pros. The problem is that all too often, zealous lawyers, especially those who are delighted at the billing opportunity, shoot first and ask the really important questions later.
At Itkowitz PLLC, as part of our Legal Project Management protocols, we work very hard to identify realistic client goals at the outset of a matter, and to make sure that we and the client are in absolute agreement thereon. Inasmuch as goals sometimes change as a matter unfolds, we seek to make sure that we all remain on the same page.
Sometimes, the goals of an engagement are obvious. But so often in today's complex world there are so many possible outcomes for a matter, that a lawyer is crazy to make any assumptions about a client's goals and priorities.
I recently got a real estate partnership as a new client. The principal at the partnership is a very, very smart person, who owns many buildings, and understands real estate litigation. She gave me a series of cases to work on - commercial tenants, behind in their rent.
My first question -- What is your goal here? Do you want these tenants to get into compliance and pay on time from now on? Or do you want these spaces back to do something else with? Or some combination thereof?
Her answer, "Keep the pressure on!"
OK, I said, I am happy to keep the pressure on, but pressure for what? What are we going after here?
Again, she told me in no uncertain terms, "Keep the pressure on!"
Again I asked what the goals were. At that point, she seemed annoyed with me. Why couldn't I understand that she wanted me to "keep the pressure on"?
A day later she called back and, as if the first conversation had never happened, and calmly told me that with three of the tenants she wanted them to catch up on payment, and stay caught up, and she had payment plans worked out with them already. For two others, she wanted the spaces back. But only one of the two was urgent, because she had something else lined up for the space that was quite imminent. She and the other tenant had a long relationship, and she wanted to allow them to relocate successfully.
This client is a pro, and gets that a lawyer needs to understand the client's goals. It just took her a day to focus on, and answer, my question.
The scary thought is how many lawyers fail to ask these questions, and instead just grab the "Keep the Pressure on!" banner and run with it. When this happens, six months, and six very high legal bills into a representation, the client calls up and asks why the bills are so high. The lawyer then answers, "Well, you said to keep the pressure on." This is not a good answer.
But it isn't always a thirst for a billing frenzy that keeps a lawyer from asking questions to discern the client’s goals. Some lawyers just never really learned how, or somehow do not feel that they have the right to challenge their clients.
Lawyers need to learn how to talk to clients about client goals. It is amazing how many clients want to run into the wind and fight an adversary “because of the principal”. That is, until they get a realistic time and cost estimate for the epic battle they ate planning.
Labels: Ch. 09 - The Client's Goals