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'Customer' or 'client'?
Thursday 24 May 2012 by Paul Rogerson
I popped in to the doctor’s yesterday but I had to wait because my GP was busy with another customer. Actually, I was a bit late for my appointment. I’d just got off the phone to my child’s teacher. She’s always keen to chat because my family is one of the school’s best customers.
As consumers, we rank that particular school above any other in the district. We joined the local church to get our children on to the waiting list. This delighted the vicar, because the poor old Church of England needs as many new customers as it can get.
Sounds crass doesn’t it? Medics, clerics and pedagogues are hardly alone among 'professionals’ in not having succumbed to the language of crude commercial exchange. Yet lawyers are not so seemingly immune. It is now routine for solicitors in particular to be told what their 'customers’ - who are 'consumers’ of legal services - want from them and how they should (or must) provide it.
The Gazette’s readership, or a significant chunk of it, gets very irate about this (see this week's letters page). A butcher, baker, or candlestick maker has 'customers’. Solicitors, who are professionals, have 'clients’. Or did.
Not only that - solicitors are officers of the court, custodians of the rule of the law. The reductive language of the street market is as misleading as it is vulgar. Of course, with the government busy dismantling legal aid, and seemingly intent on dismantling open justice too, you might think semantic punctiliousness ought not to be a primary concern of solicitors. Perhaps so.
But the dissidents have a point.
The word 'customer’ connotes a transaction between a 'buyer’ and a 'seller’, nothing more. This is the language of deskilling and commoditisation. Its effect - perhaps even its very object - is to negate the concept of the 'professional’. Just as we're all consumers now, so everyone who sells us stuff is but a self-interested 'producer'.
What they are doing - the people who use the word 'customer’ when talking about solicitors - is trying to put you in your place. That's how it seems to this non-lawyer, at any rate.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief
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