“Who’s Your [Law] Firm’s Real Client?” (Part 1 of 2)

In posing the above question last Monday, lawyer and law firm consultant Bruce MacEwen quoted Peter Drucker:

“There is only one valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.”

Having consulted to law firms on their business strategies — MacEwen argued that law firms’ “real clients” too often consist of the lawyers who own those firms — and not the organizations who pay those law firms their fees:

“… The firm exists to serve the preferences of its lawyers.”


In asking if a law firm really focuses on your business as its true customer — as its client — let’s start by looking at a high-sophistication, high-consequence professional services organization that truly focuses on its customers — its clients.

I describe the following with my wife’s permission.

His alert reading of a routine blood test prompted my wife’s internist to identify a specific parathyroid disorder.

He suggested three medical centers for the required surgery: The two most prominent university health systems in Chicago — and Tampa General Hospital.

Frequency of the required surgery:

  • For each of the two university health systems — fewer than 10 per month.
  • For Tampa General Hospital / Norman Parathyroid Center — 170 to 180 per month.  

We bought plane tickets for Tampa.

The Center sent her detailed instructions for necessary calcium supplements to have on hand for use immediately after her surgery. This would head-off avoidable after-effects of the surgery as her body adjusted to a new status quo.


Upon our arrival they immediately ushered us into a pre-surgery bay.

Dr. Norman — lead surgeon and namesake of the Center — came by to talk informally and at length. He offered an unhurried, jargon-free explanation of what he and his team would be doing.

Then came Dr. Mitchell — one of the two surgeons who’d be operating on my wife. In-depth description of how he’d conduct the procedure. Then a third parathyroid surgeon came by to talk. Then the team’s anesthesiologist.

Then they wheeled my wife into surgery.

As to the surgery itself, three features of the Center’s protocols:

(1) There are a minimum of two surgeons — sometimes three — who perform the procedure: “No case is concluded until two surgeons–both of whom have performed many thousands of parathyroid operations–agree on the assessment of the parathyroid glands and the thyroid gland.”

(2) They assess all four parathyroid glands during one surgical procedure: ” … This is very difficult to do and requires many thousands of cases before a surgeon can accomplish this routinely.” Alternative methodologies are more commonly used — elsewhere — but they’re less thorough. In my wife’s case the “all four parathyroid glands” approach was crucial — because three of hers were problematic and had to be removed.

(3) “Nobody learning to operate on you”: “We don’t allow surgeons in training to participate in our operations as all university hospitals do.”

When my wife’s surgery was complete — and she was emerging from anesthesia — Dr. Mitchell sought me out in the waiting room and spent 10 minutes explaining the favorable result — with accompanying photographs.

As she emerged from the anesthesia, one of the Center’s nurses thoughtfully brought my wife coffee — having learned that my wife was a big-time coffee-drinker most mornings.

Then back to her pre-surgery bay.

More conversations with Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Norman, and other team members.

We left fully informed, completely welcomed — and my wife was on her way to what became 100% recovery.

How I see the Norman Parathyroid Center’s formula:

   Competence: High-frequency focus on one thing

+ Communication: Well-organized, generous exchange of information between customer and service-provider

+ Focus on customer’s — not service-provider’s — needs: My wife’s high-consequence procedure was not used as the service-provider’s classroom

= Customer resultsSuccessful medical outcome plus personal reassurance

A few weeks later a family friend of ours had the same surgery — but at a major university teaching hospital.

No pre-surgery chat with the (sole) surgeon who performed her operation. No post-surgery chat either.

The post-operation difficulties that my wife had been instructed to prevent with prescribed calcium supplements? No such warning. And our friend had the predictable, but avoidable, complications.

My wife’s assessment:

“Our friend wasn’t their ‘customer’ or their ‘client’ … she was inventory.”

For too many law firms, the companies that pay their fees aren’t really their customers or clients — they’re … inventory.

In Part 2 I address why that is.



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