As a New Yorker, I’m not really rooting for either team in this year’s World Series. I confess, though, that the Royals’ post-season appearance has stirred up some nostalgia for their 1977-78 pennant races with the Yankees. Even as a Yankee fan, I respected the Royals and couldn’t help but root for their shortstop, Freddie Patek. The fact that they had an All-Star who stood all of 5’5″ (5’4″ by some accounts) meant that there was still hope for my budding major league career (it’s still budding, in case you were wondering). And who could forget that heartbreaking image of “The Flea” crying alone in the dugout after hitting into a double play to lose the 1977 pennant?
When asked how it felt being the shortest player of his day, Patek replied: “I’d rather be the shortest player in the major leagues than the tallest in the minor leagues.” Still, he often described the frustrations he had early in his career with scouts and coaches who regularly underestimated his abilities.
Colleagues who underestimate can be frustrating for lawyers too. But I’m not talking about ballplaying abilities. It’s frustrating, and concerning, when lawyers underestimate the time and cost it will take to handle a matter. Clients often demand a “ballpark” estimate and want to hear that their lawyers can handle a matter for a number well within their budget. But they are not so happy when the bills start climbing over that budget. That’s why, when asked to give an estimate, it’s wise to take some additional precautions to ensure that there are no misunderstandings:
*Make clear — in writing — that any budgets or predictions are ballpark estimates only. An informal qualification might simply read: “As we have discussed, this is our best guess based on the information currently available and is not binding.”
*Get a second opinion; consult with one of your colleagues before communicating any numbers.
*Identify different variables that could cause the fees to increase.
*Revisit your estimates. Again. And again. If the fees are increasing at a rate greater than you estimated, be proactive. Don’t wait for your client to tell you at the eve of trial that you have exceeded the estimate and that the trial will be on your dime.
Taking these steps may not keep the bills down, but they’ll help you avoid a fee dispute with a client down the road. And if there is a fee dispute, you too may end up crying in the dugout. Even if there’s no crying in baseball.