Settlement Perspectives

Thoughts on how to resolve disputes and get your deal done.


5 PerspectivesSeptember 12, 2008

Managing Expectations: An Unexpected Lesson on the Bus to Hertz

A few weeks ago I landed in Baltimore to find all the glamour that usually greets the business traveler: a wait at the bus stop better described as steamy than hot, a luggage rack designed to fit everyone’s bag but mine, and a recognition that I didn’t really know the way to my dinner meeting after all.  I soon encountered a negotiation technique ignored by some of the most experienced negotiators – a technique that worked on me that day and can work for you.

It’s Only 8 Minutes

Moments after the bus doors closed I checked the time and pondered how I would jam a full day into what was left of it.  Thirty seconds later, as I began to envision arriving at my car, a soothing voice came over the intercom and said:  “The ride to the rental car center will take approximately 8 minutes.  Please sit back and enjoy the ride.”  Or words to that effect.  While in retrospect it seems that there must have been a closer place to put the rental cars, I did as I was told.  Once I got to my car and through Hertz “security” I realized what had happened – the bus driver had managed my expectations.  And it had worked.

Buses are just one of many places where expectations are managed.  Corporate CEOs, sports teams and politicians have long been aware that satisfaction is frequently based on their performance against expectations rather than any abstract notion of what they actually achieve.  How often have we seen the stock of a high-performing company plummet because it failed to meet analyst expectations?  Do we judge who “won” a debate by who actually won or by how they performed against our expectations of them?  And how many of us have been disappointed when our team was expected to make the playoffs but ended up “only” having a winning season? 

Managing Clients’ Expectations Can Help Settle Cases

Clients in litigation have expectations, too, and those expectations are occasionally (and quite naturally) more optimistic than they should be.  At some point the final result in the case will come, and those expectations will meet reality.  Whether that encounter is a collision or merely a confirmation is up to you.  Like the passenger in 23B or the Wall Street analyst, our clients want and need to know as early as possible when the outcome they expect isn’t going to happen. 

Why is it so important to manage expectations?  So our clients can:

  • warn others with a stake in the outcome early – their shareholders, their bosses, their insurers, their spouses and more;
  • decide whether the amount of time, money and effort to be spent on the case needs to be adjusted; and
  • so they can get used to the idea themselves.

Importantly, once our clients accurately understand what their case is worth, they can make the financial, political and emotional investments required to get serious about settlement if they need to.

One Important Caveat:  The Boy Who Cried Wolf

A few months ago I caught up with an in-house lawyer I really respect and the topic turned to his most recent docket management efforts.  He told me about a series of upcoming mediations he was preparing for, from larger cases that should settle in the six figures to smaller disputes that should settle for little more than court costs.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that he had analyzed and agonized over the small cases as much as the larger ones, and he had refused to put in a “buffer” on any of his matters – even those that would settle for a few thousand dollars.  When I complimented him on this approach, his deadpan response was equally well-considered:  ”If my clients see that I overstate the little cases, I won’t have any credibility when I work with them to settle the big ones.”  

While it’s important to manage expectations, anyone who consistently overmanages expectations will quickly lose credibility.  And without credibility that lawyer will have little ability – or opportunity – to manage client expectations in the future.

By the way, managing expectations is not just a negotiation concept.  Isn’t it time for you to call home to say you might be running a little late tonight?

Categories: Communication,Fundamentals,Negotiation,Settlement

5 Perspectives:

AlynWednesday, October 29, 2008 4:53 am

You write very well.

“Judicial Hellhole” Label and Managing Expectations « Mediating CertaintyThursday, February 12, 2009 7:53 am

[...] his blog, Settlement Perspectives, John DeGrote discusses managing your client’s expectations from the client’s [...]

Keith JonesThursday, February 12, 2009 8:10 am

I found your comments about managing expectations to be very informative and have linked to this article in my blog, Mediating Certainty, I reflect there on the unique impact that the designation of West Virginia as a “judicial hellhole” might have upon expectations in litigated cases. I, too, believe that credibility is important and suggest that, in addition to management of expectations on both sides of the table, being prepared to go to trial, if necessary, is vitally important to credibility.

3 Settlement Techniques That Will Help Move A Case To Resolution – The Claims SPOTTuesday, May 25, 2010 11:14 am

[...] Expectations -  In his article, Managing Expectations: An Unexpected Lesson on the Bus to Hertz, John gives a great example of his expectations being managed about how long it would take to get [...]

5 Ways to Better Manage Internal Expectations in High Stakes Litigation | In-house AccessMonday, January 21, 2013 5:06 pm

[...] breakdowns. While a great process can’t guarantee the desired result, it will make managing your stakeholders’ expectations much easier. The following five tips are sure to get you off to a great [...]

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Settlement Perspectives
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of John DeGroote.

I created this site to help clients and their counsel navigate the challenges that inevitably result from disputes, settlement efforts, impasse, and negotiation in general. The perspectives I bring are based on my experience, summarized in this abbreviated bio. If you have any questions or thoughts about this site, or an issue you’d like to see addressed, please email me at:


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