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?