Clients or Customers?

Is the lawyer’s preference for the word “client” instead of “customer” anything more than protectionism for the arcane?

The UK Office of the Legal Ombudsman doesn’t seem to think so.

Three years ago the first press release issued by the Ombudsman’s office deliberately chose the word “customer” to symbolize the change which its arrival heralded. So explains Adam Sampson the UK’s Chief Ombudsman in the Guardian last week.

The view of the Legal Ombudsman, it seems, is that the word “client ” trails behind it habitual thinking about the provision of legal services that neither can, nor should, survive:

The term “client” embodies the traditional view of the relationship between lawyers and those they represent: one of unequal power and status.

According to Mr Sampson, “Client” is part of the lexicon that enables lawyers to ignore basic rules about customer service. The word “Customer” though depicts the relationship the right way up. The customer has the power to pick and choose between providers. Customer is king.

For example customers expect to know how much what they are buying will cost, says Mr Sampson. He concedes services such as litigation are unpredictable and can take unexpected trajectories. But he chides lawyers for being reluctant, even in areas of legal services that are less unpredictable, to provide some sort of conditional pricing that is dependent on how cases unfold. This he says is where the leaders of the legal services market are going.

He takes care not to advocate “stack ’em high sell ’em cheap” law but, he predicts, it is lawyers who put their “customers” at the heart of their business that stand the best chance of prospering.

No doubt the choice of language is powerful. Words import associations, like Trojan horses. But while the substitution of “customer” for “client” may usefully remind the legal profession it is subject to the basic rules of the market, might it not also tend to reduce the level of duty lawyers owe to those who hire them?


  1. The UK Legal Ombudsman is spot on in his assessment of the UK legal market.

    I created to deliver fixed cost legal services to consumers and businesses. Fixed cost legal services are being delivered every day by law firms across the UK through our website.

    There is a strong demand from both consumers and businesses in the UK for fixed costs legal services and with the increased competition following deregulation that demand is here to stay and will grow.

    Consumers and businesses want certainty of cost when they use a lawyer.

    Customer or client? I think the key point here is that lawyers must be customer centric if they are to successfully compete in key legal markets.

    Michael Welsh

  2. What an ugly abuse of the English language. “Customers” consume products, “clients” consume services–it’s as simple as that. Hair stylists, masseuses, and dog groomers all have “clients,” and no one accuses them of snobbery about it. We’ve chosen, linguistically, to distinguish between spending your money on an inanimate object, and spending your money of a service from a living person. Calling our clients “clients” doesn’t glorify lawyers; calling them “customers,” on the other hand, dehumanizes us.

  3. It is true that words mean something especially in terms of business. The right or the wrong word can change the premise of a situation and redefine it. The words client and customer are examples of that happening. The reason for the word change it would define the relationship from the beginning but I can also see the dilemma because when it comes to law, the person should believe that the lawyer is there for their benefit and nothing else. The word customer does not define that so clearly.

  4. I tend to agree that “customer” implies a consumer of products and is therefore not suitable for the law firm setting.

    In the library world we have had a similar back-and-forth with this terminology. Traditionally consumers of library services have been called “patrons”. In recent years we have also employed the word “users” (a horrible word really). However, from working in a law firm, I have long preferred the term “clients”.

    I wonder what the Ombudsman would think if his doctor started referring to him as a “customer”?

  5. +1 for Kevin Kindred’s comment above.

    Plus, if you consider some of the traditional applications, such as “lawyers serving their clients”, the inequity is plainly in favour of the recipient of legal services. Not lawyers.

  6. Putting on my customer/client hat, it’s the “doing” and the entirety of the conduct that matters more than the “saying”, or the term used to refer to me. To say that adopting a different word will confer respect or equality for the consumer where it is otherwise absent is dubious. I’m pretty sure banks, insurance companies and cell phone companies could just as soon call me “chump” as customer for all the good their actions do my feelings of respect, or my equality of bargaining power.
    Also, is the “traditional view” embodied by the term “client” really limited to feelings of disrespect and disdained status? What about trusted advisor, counselor, someone I pay a lot to because they actually know better? It occurs to me that many people engage lawyers because they need someone to step in and show them how to fix a problem. If the customer is always right, then that term certainly doesn’t describe a significant percentage of legal clients who pay quite a bundle for a lawyer to fix their mistakes?