This is a topic I’ve had on my “to be written” list for a long time. I’m prompted to write it now based on having been on the client side of working with a lawyer. Having been the client of lawyers on several occasions, I can say I much prefer the relationship in which the lawyer is my client. In this case, my brothers and I engaged a lawyer to continue the estate planning work we started long before our parents passed away. The lawyer did a reasonably good job in the early planning phase, but as we learned after the fact, he neglected a couple of details that turned out to be significant, in large part, by failing to communicate clearly to us. Being a lawyer is one of the best examples of an occupation that is considered to be “professional.” But, being professional involves more than just the specific profession. It involves behavior that meets clients expectations. In fact, it is so important to lawyers that the Florida Bar has continuing legal education requirements that include courses on “professionalism.” The place where this lawyer, in the end, seemed most unprofessional was his failure to provide a detailed invoice chronicling the service for which he was billing us. Instead, he provided an invoice that said “38.5 hours” and included some general details about what had transpired. When we asked about this, he said he never provides his clients with detailed billing. We wanted to see it because we believed he billed for things we would not have authorized had he asked us in advance. Getting hit with a somewhat unexpected bill after the fact was a rude surprise. Further, when we questioned him about a number of aspects of the engagement at the end, he got defensive, raised his voice, and accused us of “not liking when someone disagrees with you.” We had not raised our voice, or been harsh at all with him (though we wanted to be). And, back to the beginning, communication and professionalism seem to me to go hand in hand. We have more means of communicating than ever and our lawyer and his assistants seem generally proficient in these. Yet, there were key items that he never bothered to communicate that cost us money and much time in the end. Saying what you are doing, and doing it, meet expectations. When one doesn’t, the lack of professionalism is glaring. My point is that, particularly in a service oriented business, professionalism is one of the only slightly tangible parts of providing client service.
What does it mean to conduct oneself with professionalism? Professionalism, in my opinion, does not equate with wearing an expensive suit, working in a high rise office building with a scenic view, or many of the other outward, but superficial indicators of success. Recently, David and I spent a few days in Merida, Mexico. We were waiting in the lobby of a rental car company when I observed a man cleaning the large windows and glass doors of the building’s exterior. His precision and meticulousness in ensuring all the windows were spotless were amazing to me. I have never had the opportunity to watch a window cleaner at work in such close proximity. Not only did he clean the windows, perfectly, he carefully mopped the marble floor near the windows to ensure no puddles were left behind. This is what professionalism looks like to me. David’s recent experience with his family’s attorney, unfortunately, is all too common. Although I don’t think people in today’s working world are less professional than they used to be, lest I be accused of waxing nostalgic for the “good old days,” I believe professionalism is, perhaps, less concerning to many people than it should be. Many of us are self absorbed to the point that we believe no one can replace us, therefore, there is little motivation to do the best job we can or conduct ourselves in a professional manner. Personally speaking, I would rather turn down the offer of work than accept it, only to perform my job with anything less than excellence or professionalism. Too bad many people do not share the work ethic of the window washer and me.