The CSI effect: managing client expectations
Mutually beneficial relationships help the legal system work smoothly so lawyers should be patient and candid with upset clients, says Toronto civil and commercial litigator Jonathan Miller.
He says many people have little or no experience with the complex legal system and their point of reference could be based on inaccurate legal television shows that give them unrealistic expectations.
While research has debunked much of the so-called CSI effect — the way exaggerated crime dramas bias jurors — studies suggest they can still influence the public, says Miller, an associate with the Toronto office of Shibley Righton LLP.
"Some people seem to think we can do anything and everything without ever writing a document — or that trials start within a week or two of a first court appearance. It’s not how it’s portrayed on TV, but I think that impacts people’s expectations of their lawyer,” he says.
Best practices in the legal profession come from a wide field with every law society and bar association offering guidelines for management and practice, but a strong thread that runs through it all is the basic idea of building and maintaining relationships, Miller says.
"Most lawyers are aware of it, but it’s never bad to have a reminder that clients may come in and be angry or have other negative emotions," he says. "It's important to remember that you want to maintain that client relationship."
Miller tells AdvocateDaily.com that lawyers are expected to be candid, which sometimes means providing clients with information they don't want to hear.
"But there are certain ways legal counsel can present it so they’re not creating animosity. They should be fostering a relationship of trust because the client has the expectation that they can have faith in their lawyer,” he says.
Miller recalls a situation where a client suggested he wasn't working in her best interests.
"I took my time, wrote a fairly lengthy email that acknowledged the client’s frustration and advised what was being done and why it was taking longer than the client would have liked.
"She was frustrated with the process and that was being directed at me, properly or not, so it’s important to understand where the client is coming from,” he says.
When emotions run high the focus shouldn’t be difficult clients, but rather on people dealing with challenging circumstances, Miller explains.
"They sometimes just don’t know where to direct it," he says.
Miller suggests a lawyer address the concerns, real or imagined, but in a calm manner because knee-jerk reactions could lead to regret.
"It’s important to not respond in anger so you can provide a cogent response such as, 'This isn’t what you want to hear, but this is what I need to tell you,'" he says.
Things worked out with the distraught client, but Miller says they could have gone south quickly had he reacted without thinking.
"Having said that, I think it’s also important to not let clients walk all over you," he says. "At some point, you may need to take a stand and say, 'If you think I’m doing this improperly, maybe you would be better off with another advocate.'
"Certainly a lawyer is entitled to protect himself, but just be careful and respectful about how it's done," Miller says.