The single biggest challenge in my practice is layered– like a cake or a parfait or an onion or… everybody’s favorite grumpy, Glaswegian-accented ogre.
That single biggest challenge has three layers, to be precise:
- Managing my clients’ expectations– understanding that all of my clients are attorneys,
- Helping them to manage the court’s expectations, and
- Helping them to manage their clients’ (litigants’) expectations.
The first of those is pretty simple. Practitioners get it. For the most part, attorneys understand that litigation takes a while. It’s just a part of the business. They understand that what happens here in the U.S. and Canada doesn’t happen the same way in Latin America or Asia or even Europe. [See “Things are different overseas. Get used to it.” and “Things take longer overseas. Get used to it.”]
Judges and court officials, a bit less so. At the federal level, that’s pretty easy to overcome [see “You’ve got a friend in 4(m).”]. Sometimes, state court officials are a little harder to convince, but it’s usually not excruciating [see “Modify State Court Summons Deadlines. Just do it.”].
But that third layer of the challenge– the litigants themselves– are a tough bunch. Most of the time, they’re the folks paying the bills, and their view of how litigation should operate doesn’t always jive with the very real pace of the judicial system here on the North American continent. It’s slow, it’s ponderous, and that lack of speed and agility is frustrating to people who operate in a fast-paced world. Lawyers must constantly remind their clients– who are rightly frustrated– that litigants cannot control the docket’s pace, and if they try, they bring on the wrath of a very irate judge.
But it’s even worse in other countries. With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you here, Scotland… you’re brave and quick), the slow/ponderous/frustrating system we inhabit here in the U.S. and Canada is lightning fast compared to the rest of the globe. Sure, when a litigant is frustrated by the cost or extraordinarily long wait, the smart-aleck in me wants to say “well, you should have picked a different defendant.” But that’s just not in the cards. The smart-aleck in me needs to be slapped on the regular, so all I can say is “I understand, but… there’s nothing we can do about it.”
A few years ago, I read an outstanding book* by Scottish therapist Gary John Bishop.** One of the big takeaways I gleaned from it went something like this (I’m paraphrasing here):
You’re not upset/angry/frustrated because XYZ happened. You’re frustrated because XYZ’s happening conflicts so violently with your expectations. Adjust your expectations, bring them in line with a realistic view of the universe, and you’re going to be much less upset/angry/frustrated.
(It sounds even more eloquent on the audiobook in Bishop’s Glaswegian accent.)
That lies at the core of managing litigant expectations. They rarely come to a lawyer because things are going well. More often than not, they need us because things have gone horribly awry. But it’s critical to make sure they understand– right up front– that suing an offshore defendant is a long, costly slog. If they know at the beginning, it’s a whole lot easier to ease their minds several months into the process.
* The book’s title may offend overly delicate sensibilities. Not to be overly blunt, but if your sensibilities are that delicate, I suggest you exit the practice of law immediately.
** Bishop– and the Glasgow sensibilities he espouses– are yet another reason I love that place. Add Billy Connolly and a traffic cone on a statue’s heed, and I’m all in.