Young lawyers must learn to manage client expectations


Jonathan Miller HeadShot

Counsel must develop strong communication skills if they hope to keep client expectations in check when it comes to a potential settlement, Toronto civil and commercial litigator Jonathan Miller tells

Miller, associate with the Toronto office of Shibley Righton LLP, says he begins thinking about how to manage a client’s expectations from the very beginning of a file.

“If you don’t promise someone the moon, then hopefully they won’t be expecting it, but managing expectations is very much an ongoing process,” he says. “As things progress, opinions can change, and you might have to revise the advice you’ve given them in terms of recovery or loss. But if you set the stage early, it’s easier to adjust those expectations down the road.”

Miller says crafting a claim can be a particularly challenging time, especially when acting for a plaintiff with little experience in the legal realm. Lawyers may wish to advance claims under certain heads of damages for tactical reasons, even if the chances of success are small, he adds.

Problems can arise when clients allow their beliefs to stand in the way of a potentially favourable settlement, and Miller says lawyers shouldn’t be shy about confronting a skeptical plaintiff who wants to hold out for more.

“As a young lawyer, it can be difficult to wrangle your client a little, especially when you have to tell them that they're being unreasonable,” he says. “But it’s also important and valuable for young lawyers to deal with these kinds of situations early in their career, and learn how to speak with clients to appropriately manage expectations about what they can actually recover as part of a negotiated settlement.

“As you become involved with larger and more sophisticated files, you’re going to come across clients with their own opinions about what they’re entitled to, and it’s your obligation to make sure they’re properly informed about the risks,” Miller says.

In one recent case involving a severance package offered to his client by a former employer, Miller had to explain how a risky additional claim could potentially quadruple the value of the damages.

“But it was one of those cases where the new claim was not a sure thing by any means, and we had to decide whether it was worth pursuing,” he says.

After taking into consideration the risks, stress, cost and time associated with a lawsuit, his client elected to settle the matter with Miller’s help, before resorting to litigation.

“The client was reasonable and had certain expectations about what they wanted to recover,” Miller says. “My job was to help them understand what was beyond the scope of a realistic settlement, what they have to dig in and fight for, and what they’re prepared to risk in order to recover as much as possible.”

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