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In-house lawyers and use of “client” compared to “business partner” (and “customer”)

Most in-house lawyers, I would wager, refer to fellow employees who seek their legal advice as “clients.” Others, a much smaller number, vociferously reject that term. They perceive themselves as working together with fellow employees on a team and disavow some of the implications of the term “client” (See my post of Sept. 25, 2008: MetLife refers to “business partners”; and Oct. 8, 2007: banish the word “client”.). Perhaps one of those implications is that in-house lawyers are less familiar with the business and less enablers of it when in a client relationship. Other differences occur to me.

Clients pay. Clients come to in-house lawyers, as clients come to law firms, but few pay for the services. At least not directly. It is the small minority of clients who receive bills from the law department for hours worked and actually transfer funds internally (See my post of Nov. 22, 2008: charge backs of internal lawyer time with 8 references.).

Attorney-client privilege. Clients are entitled to the attorney-client privilege, an important right forsaken if lawyers take business decisions (See my post of Feb. 16, 2008: attorney-client privilege with 18 references.).

Partnership. Clients are not truly partners. No one contributes capital, no one is promoted, no one shares in profits and losses.

Voluntary. Clients have no choice but to use the in-house legal team, whereas you pick your team. Then again, even “business associates” still have to use the in-house group rather than blithely go outside.

As I see it, neither “clients” nor “partners” are “customers” of a legal department, even though some legal teams use that term (See my post of Dec. 21, 2005: Philipps’ law department pursues “customer alignment”; and April 15, 2006: Adobe’s general counsel used the term.). Customers come to an establishment and purchase something. Often, they receive no counseling, unlike getting training or advice from a lawyer; money always changes hands; and establishments want more and more customers. I use the term “customer” for those who do business with the company of the law department (See my post of Dec. 9, 2008: document assembly helps customers.).

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