Law Firms have Clients or Customers ?
Let us begin by checking the definitions of the entries which are contained in the Houaiss (Portuguese) dictionary:
Client: A person that entrusts the defense of his/her interests or rights to an attorney, a prosecutor or a notary officer; a person that hires services or buys goods by means of payment; a buyer, customer, a person that always consults the same doctor, dentist, etc.
Consumer: the one or that one that consumes; the one or that one that buys goods, resources or services for his/her own use or for the use of his/her family: a buyer, a customer, a client.
The first analysis that we can make is that, although they are almost synonyms, the definition of client suggests, in its interpretation, an existing relationship between the supplier and the consumer, a consumption habit or some loyalty before the former, whereas the word consumer suggests the simple act of timely consumption of a product or a service (an analysis that is very well elaborated by Adelle Sommers in her article “Client or Customer? You Decide”, written in 2007).
In addition to the aforementioned analysis, I would like to add another one, a very important one, which has to do with two aspects that are purely psychological: tolerance and accommodation.
The relation of a punctual consumption is much more impersonal (without practically any engagement between the consumer and the supplier), with much more freedom of choice among suppliers and also added by practically no tolerance regarding failures or defects, no matter how small they might be. As an example, I mention our individual characteristic of choosing and buying a consumer good. Firstly, we analyze the characteristics that we want, then we set off to the choice of the supplier (all this made easier by the use of the internet and the search engines) and, in the end, at the time of the choice, if it is in person, we choose the piece that has no defect (a scratch, dirt, any mark of use) and disregarding those ones that have the capacity to fulfill us functionally, but whose esthetics is compromised.
The supplier / client relationship is longer, there is a bigger engagement between the parties and the freedom of choice is smaller (it presupposes the need to terminate the contract). Due to the two previous characteristics, one ends up having a certain tolerance to small mistakes by the supplier and also accommodation of both parties and therein lies the danger!
It is exactly this bigger tolerance and accommodation of the client (compared to the timely consumption) that generates the accommodation of the supplier and, as a consequence, the slow and, sometimes,imperceptible decrease of the quality of the products or of the rendered services.
In the current market stage, it is fundamental that any company should begin to treat their clients as consumers and should leave this comfort zone!
And bringing the topic to the universe of the law offices, we face some difficulties for the implementation of this concept and of the change.
1-) The fact (that I already mentioned in another discussion) of the office leaders refusing to admit that their businesses are companies! The phrase: “a law office is not a company” or “the profession has no trading objective whatsoever” are absolutely outdated and refers to a time when the attorney-client relationship was much different from the current one.
2-) And also the fact that the offices are neither much used to competitiveness nor to the volatility of their clients. This market (of corporate offices) is reasonably small; it had its growth in the 90’s and it still has relatively a few “players.”
The big evolution of this market will occur when the current “players” begin to change the posture of the law offices to companies that render legal services and treat the clients as consumers, running the risk of losing their statuses and being engulfed by those which will do that!
José Paulo Graciotti, is consultant and founding Partner of GRACIOTTI ASSESSORIA EMPRESARIAL, engeneer by Escola Politécnica Universidade de São Paulo, with Financial MBA at FGV and specialized in Knowledge Mnagement by FGV. ILTA Member since 1998 (International Legal Technology Association) with more than 27 years managing Law Firms in Brazil – www.graciotti.com.br