September 2, 2008
We don't serve customers, we educate students
I have been seeing, and hearing, much about "customer service" lately. Customer service is important; it is what keeps people coming back to purchase products and services from retailers. What really concerns me is the move towards "customer service" in law school. We don't serve customers, we serve students. We don't sell a product or a service, we educate people. Law school isn't like a pair of shoes; you can't return it if it doesn't fit right or doesn't match a dress. You can't "return" law school if it's not right. Our duty is just-in-time critical. We only have one shot to get legal education right for each student, and sometimes that may produce discomfort. We are not retailers; we do not mass-produce a product that can sit idly on store shelves until it it is purchased or thrown away. Nor is education strictly a service; we build relationships, and if we do it right, we help people become a more actualized professional. There isn't a metaphor that can accurately capture what education is, and customer service is certainly not the way to describe what we do.
By focusing on "customer service", law schools are demeaning the students. Our students are more than customers. I don't want them to come out of my office happy with their experience; I want them to come out of my office with the help they need to become better students and better people. Sometimes that is one visit, but more often than not, it is a process that requires several visits. We work together to find ways to solve their problems. Sometimes students should come out of my office less happy; fixing a problem is hard work, and that is not always what they want to hear. But I am not dispensing advice to make people happy, I am a support to help them through their law school career.
"Customer service" also demeans the institution and the process. I am not a telemarketer or a retail clerk. Education is a calling. If legal educators wanted to be in retail, they would not be working in law schools. We are in the "business" of the public good. We are not doing our jobs if we produce a static product that does not change or grow with the needs of the community. If we were just in it to keep our "customers" happy, we would all need to be paid a lot more. But our satisfaction doesn't come from the money, but comes from knowing we help people, dynamic and ever changing, meet the needs of people in the community.
The "customer service" model contributes to the dehumanization of law students. This is what we should be working to ameliorate and end, not encourage. People are not products. Viewing them as a product we send out to be "sold" after three years of manufacture ignores their humanity, their individuality, and their unique gifts and talents.
Customer service certainly doesn't help us promote professionalism. If we are just retailers, than it doesn't matter how they turn out, because we sold our product and we are done (unless they want to give us more money, of course). But I do care how may students turn out. I care deeply about their lives and careers after they exit law school. My focus may be on their time as students, but as people, I want them to know education never ends. As lawyers, we have a duty to promote professionalism before, during, and after their time in our hallowed halls. Professional quandaries aren't limited to exercises in a textbook. We are teaching people to answer tough questions that will challenge them throughout their careers. If students are just customers, we are failing to fulfill our responsibilities to our students and to the greater community.
I am hoping this "customer service" movement dies a quick death, soon. I educate students, not customers. I serve the community, not just my students. I have a duty higher, and more precious, than just producing a product for the marketplace.
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