< back to articles listings

Make 2023 the Year of Managed Expectations

by Jay Reeves |

Want a New Year’s Resolution that’s free, painless and guaranteed to improve your Law Life?

Resolve to make 2023 the Year of Managed Expectations. 

To succeed, you don’t have to join a gym, swear off Ghirardelli Premium Chocolate Squares, or cancel Netflix. You will have to change your thinking – and perhaps a behavior or two. But if you stick with it, great riches will come your way.

I know this because after 40 years in the profession (much of it representing lawyers in trouble) I’ve observed that happy, successful attorneys are invariably good at managing expectations – starting with their own and including those of their clients, colleagues, workmates and family.

Unhappy lawyers, not so much.

Here then, in the spirit of fresh starts, is a crash course in Expectation Management 101.


Managing Expectations Tip #1: What you see is not always what you get.

Psychologists tell us when we expect a certain outcome, our brain can trick us into believing it’s inevitable. We already “see” it happening. The only question is when. 

That’s why it’s important to ask new clients questions like: “What do you want? How do you think I can help? How would you describe a successful outcome to your case?”  


Managing Expectations Tip #2: Your words will come back to haunt you.

The first of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz, is “Be impeccable with your words.” 

Idle talk (“Your case is a slam dunk… I’ll definitely have it finished by tomorrow… There’s no way we can lose.”) is a malpractice plaintiff’s playground. 

Similarly, be careful about musing aloud at the family dinner table that maybe, possibly, someday we might go to Disneyland. You’re thinking: next year, or never. Your kids hear: “We’re going to Disneyland!”


Managing Expectations Tip #3: Under-promise and over-deliver.

Ever been lured into a movie theater by a dynamite trailer, only to find the film itself a colossal dud?

Avoid this in your Law Life by embracing a crescendo strategy of less to more. Start small and finish big. Build to a rousing finale. Clients will give you two thumbs-up and return for the sequel.


Managing Expectations Tip #4: Little things mean a lot.

Most lawyers do a decent job of managing clients’ Big Expectations (“How much money will I get? Will I win at trial? How long will this take?”) 

It’s the Little Expectations that cause trouble.

Example: you tell a client you’ll call them “right back” or “in a few minutes” or “shortly.” An hour passes before you get around to calling. No biggie, right, especially if you apologize? Wrong. It might be a very big deal to the client. At the very least, your credibility has been eroded. If this becomes a pattern, the relationship will crumble.


Managing Expectations Tip #5: Put it in writing.

According to the marketing adage “seven times, seven ways,” a message must be communicated repeatedly across different channels before it fully sinks in.

This is especially true for clients, who may be too distressed, distrustful or distracted to hear anything you say. Even if they are listening, they might not understand.

Avoid a communication breakdown with plain English, simple explanations and impeccable words (see Tip #3). Use written scripts, intake forms and “What to Expect in Your Case” handouts. Follow up with an email or letter confirming what you said.


Managing Expectations Tip #6: Stay in the here and now.

By definition, an expectation is future-based. And while it’s fine to have dreams and goals, it’s important to keep yourself and your client grounded in the present. That’s where the action is. Be patient, don’t get ahead of yourself, one step at a time.


Managing Expectations Tip #7: Adjust when necessary.

Life is always changing. Our expectations should change with it. Expectations that are rigid, rooted and refuse to adapt to changed circumstances will result in misery.

The authors of Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life have come up with this formula: Happiness equals reality minus shifting expectations. To the extent our expectations align with reality, we are happy. To the extent they exceed what is real and possible, we are unhappy. 

Law Life Libretto: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. / And next year’s words await another voice. / And to make an end is to make a beginning.” (T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding)

Law Life Libretto, Part 2: “Cheers to a new year and another chance to get it right.” (Oprah)


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Newsletter Signup