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Attorney Secrets – Six Steps to Setting Realistic Client Expectations

Raise your hand if you’re ever had an incident where you could have set better client expectations. [Author’s hand is currently raised.] Hopefully, I’m not alone here.

Though tailored for the immigration practice, this could probably apply in any attorney-client interaction. Clients who walk through your door want and need help. The conversations that ensue during this initial consultation ultimately influences whether this client becomes your best referral or your worst nightmare. So be sure to cover these important points:

1. Establish a Timeline

Is there an impending court date? Is there a deadline or a statute of limitations involved? Is the client’s H-1B capping (and maxing) out? Have non-refundable airline tickets already been purchased? Is there an escrow closing date? When does employment begin? When is the marriage or birth date? Is the client currently in detention? So many events will influence how much time you will have to assist this particular client. Make sure the client understands why the timeline is so critical and what they can do to help.

2. Is the Timeline Fluid?

Can the timeline be changed or moved? If so, can the client do it or will that require your assistance? Sometimes, a request for an extension can be made. Start-dates for employment might be flexible. If there is an artificial timeline set by the client, it’s important to understand why. “Because I want to get my greencard soon” absent any other time sensitive reason is usually a response that spells trouble. You need to understand how much flexibility you have, in the event of an unforeseen delay. Immigration processes (and your office resources) seldom follow your client’s timeline so it is very important both parties have a clear understanding of how the case will play out.

3. Explaining the Immigration Process

You are the expert (or hopefully will ally with an expert). By spelling out in step-by-step detail how the immigration process will unfold today until a decision is issued on the case, you provide your client with a clear picture. What is required to file the case? How long does the responsible government agency take to process this case? Is there more than one government agency involved? What happens after the case is filed? Strategies should be explained here and the pros and cons of preparing a case one way versus another. Honestly, how strong is this case? What are the potential routes for remediation if the case is denied? What are the available options? (Invariably the client tells me about an external non-government tracking site and/or the advice their cousin’s friend’s aunt told them about their immigration status …. You too will probably have to use your discretion on how to manage these “other experts.”)

4. Explaining Your Process

Will there be a dedicated paralegal, supervisor or coordinator working on the matter or will you be solely involved? If you are a sole practitioner, what arrangements have been made in the event that you become incapacitated and cannot render legal assistance to your client? Do you useimmigration case management software that helps you prepare the immigration case? If so, how will the client be able to access their data? Is that software safe? How quickly will documents be evaluated? How quickly will forms be prepared? What is your method of shipment? How will you notify your client about updates to their case? Are there third parties such as employers, officiants, witnesses, the police or others that will be involved who may affect the timeliness of the case preparation?

5. The Client’s Role

Be realistic about how much time and effort the client must devote to the preparation of their case. Are certain documents needed from the client that will take extra time and effort, such as reference letters, employment confirmation letters, degree transcripts, or documents for marriage, birth, divorce or adoption? Will consultation letters be needed from various trade organizations? If so, what role would the client play in obtaining them? Some clients are so busy they take weeks to respond to an email or a phone call. Other clients will provide you with documents and a summary of each in a tabbed three-inch binder the next day. It’s important to gauge your client’s ability and willingness to produce the necessary types of supporting documentation.

6. Translating Legal Fees into Value

Clients will always care about the legal fees. Some clients are more ready to sign on the dotted line and pay because you’ve done a good job of convincing them of your value. By explaining the process inside and out, and letting the client know their role, your role, and the roles of potential others, you help them make an informed decision. The fee agreement should lay out the scope of services and exactly what fees are to be paid. All of these points add to setting realistic expectations with your client. Even if you haven’t covered these points at the outset, it’s never too late to have a tête-à-tête with your client.