One of the fundamental skills of a legal professional is to manage expectation. Expectation of what can be achieved, and how quickly. Expectation of winning. Expectation of what a legal professional is for, and how much of them you can actually have. It is a natural human trait to believe that the world revolves around me, myself & I, and so it is a logical conclusion to believe that all lawyers are only ever working on one case at a time, and working on it constantly. (That is true, of course, and that case is yours).
I was reminded of the extremes of unchecked expectation the other day whilst travelling on a train run by a well-known and ubiquitous company who may or may not be propelling us into space anytime soon: (more thwarted expectation). A lady sat across the aisle from me wearing an immoveable expression of disappointment and disgust; (not aimed, so far as I could tell, directly at me). It was clear that most things were wrong in this lady’s day to day experience, and today was not about to prove an exception for her. The refreshments trolley arrived. Sour lady regarded the Refreshments Man with disdain, and said:
“ I don’t suppose you have any herbal tea?”
Whilst I was inwardly scoffing at the mere suggestion, Refreshments Man puffed out his chest, just a little, with pride, and said:
“Actually, Madam – we do! We have mint, and we have lemon and ginger!”
He had probably waited a long time to say those words, and he waited with dimly disguised satisfaction for her expression of wonder and delight at the boundless range of delicacies that he had to offer. On the contrary, Mrs Sour’s face fell into even deeper disapproval and rejection.
“Well in that case, no.” she said firmly.
I have rarely seen a man so deflated – and in all my years in the Crown Court, that is serious deflation. Disappointment and bafflement warred within him. He couldn’t help himself – he had to know.
“What were you hoping for?” he queried, stupefied.
“Something with Echinacea!” she shot back, as if it were obvious.
I tried not to snort my regular tea down my nose.
I have had my own skills in expectation management sorely tested over the years, particularly in the criminal law days. I remember sitting in a cell with a client who had seriously hurt someone to the point where they had, unfortunately, died. We weren’t ready to say the word “murder”. He explained, very patiently and carefully, so that I would understand, that he wasn’t able to go to prison, as he had things that he needed to do that year, and so, as I was his paid representative, (not paid by him, admittedly, but certainly paid with money, which I needed to demonstrate that I was conscientiously earning), could I kindly get him off, or, at least secure a non-custodial sentence?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I used to receive briefs from jaded, tired and over-worked solicitors, (who no longer had any expectations of any kind), which appeared to be composed of most of the contents of a random filing cabinet, tipped recklessly over at the top of the stairs, and gathered in haste at the bottom, with a scrawled cover sheet, stating simply:
“Herewith Brief. Counsel to use Best Endeavours.”.
Mournful, with only the merest glimmer of hope. Anything more than nothing was a plus. (It never hurts to remind us to use Best Endeavours, otherwise we might forget, and do the papers whilst on a ride at Alton Towers, or something).
These days, I have honed my skills with much practice provided by small children. Their expectations are so wild, and the management of them so challenging, that I can now break pretty much any kind of news to anyone, and convince them that they really must do exactly as I say without deviation, whilst at the same time giving them a reassuring sense that worse things happen at sea, and that it will probably all work out as the Universe intended.
Recently, I have been trying to negotiate with my son to give up his fish tank. Technically, Oscar1 gave up on his fish some time ago, and they would have gone to the great river in the sky, had his father and I not nagged him skinny and dropped in a few flakes and wafers now and then. But the time has come to regularise the situation, and Oscar was almost brought to the point of capitulation, but not without terms and conditions.
“Can we keep the tank and can I have African Snails instead?” he asked.
Holly, the middle child instantly seized an opportunity and leapt on the bandwagon to add demands to the tense negotiation. “And terrapins?!” she threw in.
Lulu, the youngest, had no idea what was going on, but was adamantly not going to be left out of any potential deal of profit.
“Pandas!” she yelled excitedly.
Rather than spending time managing expectations appropriately, and giving reasons, (which we all know we must always do, in order to avoid challenge), I just shouted: “NO!!!” to all of it, shut my ears to the wailing, and went to get a cup of Echinacea-free tea.
Perhaps this is the technique that I will try more universally in 2016. Happy New Year!
1Names have been changed to protect the guilty, and all children’s names have been replaced with those of their favourite teddy bear.