Some clients want to squeeze in a mediation before their morning run. Other clients want to be your new Best Friend Forever–emphasis on the Forever.

Our job lies somewhere in-between the two extremes of drive-through mediation and life-long partners.

Spend too little time with a client and you can’t have an adequate understanding of the problem to really be helpful. Spend too much time with a client and they are running to you every time things get tough instead of learning how to resolve things themselves.

So, how do we strike the right balance with our clients? We need to manage expectations early, clearly, and repeatedly. Tell your client in the very beginning how long you expect each meeting to last, how many meetings you expect an issue to take, and what to do if there are additional issues.  Of course, this can be amended during the mediation. But if you see a mediation as lasting two hours, and your client expects it to last eight hours: if you didn’t discuss this in the beginning it is nobody’s fault but your own.

Dear Kate Reed in Fairly Legal often finds herself in this predicament. Let’s examine how she does it as a No-No Guidebook:

1) Kate promises to fix everything.  Whenever her clients are in trouble (which they always are), she promises that she will be the one to make it better.  Kate needs to be setting realistic expectations at this point and drawing the parties into the negotiation circle. She could say, “Call me with any questions, I’ll check on you in the morning, I’ll try my hardest,” etc.  Instead she says, “I’ll fix it; I promise.”

2) So what’s the problem with saying “I’ll fix it; I promise”?  Well, she says she will be the one to fix it, without putting any of the responsibility on the parties.  She is telling them to take a vacation.  It’s like she’s Ty Pennington on Extreme Home Makeover, and she is telling the clients to go calm down somewhere else so that she can come in, clean out all the dirt, and make things pretty before they get back. This is fine if she wants to be their live-in mediator.  The problem is she hasn’t taught her clients anything about communication, nor made the long-term relationship between her clients any better.

3) “I promise.”  How does she know that?  How does she know that she can get someone out of jail, or put someone in jail, or prevent a daughter from being abused by her father, or get a couple to fall in love again?  She can promise to try her hardest and do her best.  She can promise to be available until the end of the case. But promising an outcome that she has no control over is irresponsible.  It is being reckless with someone else’s life.

4) Kate always says, “Yes.” Even if she has somewhere else to be, even if she made it clear that she has another meeting in twenty minutes, when her clients want her, Kate always says yes.  On the one hand, this is very kind of Kate to make herself so available.  In some situations it is probably the best thing for the case.  But on the other hand, I think it devalues Kate’s time and her other clients’ time.  If someone tells me that they have a meeting with another client in twenty minutes, and at the end of twenty minutes they keep talking to me, it doesn’t make me feel important. Instead it makes me feel that I am talking with someone who does not manage time well and who does not care about other people’s time.  It makes me feel that the next time I will be the client getting stood up and that she won’t care.

At the end of the day, the best way to help your client act honorably is to act honorably yourself. If you hold yourself to a moral code, then your client will too.  I promise.