Kalokagathia

Are all of my customer service complaints doomed to be seen as illegitimate?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, "A Lawyer Bride Sues Her Florist" which reminded me of sintecho's recent post "Does Your Partner Hide Behind Your Skirts?" Now, I certainly do not think that sintecho's encounters were based solely on her status as a lawyer - I am inclined to agree with her assessment that had her husband also been a lawyer, the parties would have nevertheless still requested to speak with him. That being said, I went to read the WSJ article and found myself guilty of the very stereotype I now wish to condemn. I read the headline and though "here we go... another lawyer suing just because they know how..." Then I read the article. Now, I may be biased having recently witnessed my mother complete the horrendous journey that can be planning a wedding. This can lead to many negative experiences. I do not mean to say that all businesses in the wedding industry are bad or they are all out to cheat you - certainly there are many reputable companies worthy of respect for their commitment to doing the job they have been employed to do. But there are also many businesses that take advantage of the fact that (at least in theory) the bride is a one-time customer. Sure, word-of-mouth may damage a reputation if the service is poor - but if the bride herself never comes back - well, that is to be expected. So upon reading the WSJ article - I found myself growing angry for more than one reason. First, I took the bride's complaint at her word. I have no knowledge of the ultimate facts, and I may be completely erroneous in choosing sides. That aside - I then got angry with myself. Here I was thinking the same thing that the business owner has said "don't deal with lawyers" - this is what I thought before reading the article, despite the fact that I will soon be a lawyer. Finally, I grew angry with the stereotype I realized I had been harboring. A guy I once dated was in the medical profession - he told me that one of his teachers had advised him to avoid servicing lawyers if at all possible. Are we really that bad? Yes, we live in a litigious society - but does our knowledge of the law make us more likely to sue unnecessarily? Or does it make us just more likely to know when someone isn't holding up their end of the deal? Finally, in light of sintecho's article, I now wonder what the implications might be for me as a woman and me as a lawyer. Will people refuse to deal with me because I am a lawyer and I might sue, and will they prefer not to deal with me because I am emotional and unreasonable? I hope that I am not dooming myself to be labeled "the enemy". And I hope that I will hold myself accountable for my stereotyping of others in the future - lest I deservingly be labeled as "the enemy". *photo by http://www.sxc.hu/profile/jynmeyer

7 Comments

Legal Eagle

I read that WSJ item and had an entirely different reaction. I'm a female law student, but my thought was: "God, why couldn't that 'lawyer bride' just LET IT GO?" Couldn't she just, you know, not pay? Or if she'd already paid, then stop payment on her check? Or file a complaint with her credit card company so they'd investigate and recover the money? Suing should not be the answer to everything.
Though I'm buying into about 83 terrible stereotypes of my own gender with everything I just wrote… Still. There it is. I have a hard time believing I'm EVER going to read a headline reporting that "lawyer bridegroom sues florist" because the wedding party's corsages were wilted or didn't quite match the cumberbunds. Elana's suing for $400,000 in damages when all that is due (taking the bride at her word) is a $4,000 refund. Stories like this teach us never to do business with lawyers, sure… or BRIDES. And that's what hurts women particularly. Bleah, Elana.

Kalokagathia

good point… I did neglect to say that the amount prayed for is ridiculous… (not to mention my feelings about the amount spent in the first place - but that is an entirely different gripe) I also like your point about finding other routes to resolve conflict other than litigating - though I don’t know all of the details, whether or not other routes were attempted… but it can never hurt to be reminded that litigation is not always the best answer… in fact, it is often NOT the best answer. On a final note, I wonder how our readers might compare this to the judge who sued over the dry cleaner losing his pants… do these scenarios compare? Personally I find the judge’s lawsuit to be far more ridiculous - not only because the amount prayed for was so large, but because of the context as well. But again, I have already admitted bias… I will confess that the dry cleaner lost my comforter recently… but like most normal people (at least I hope) they offered to reimburse for the cost of replacement. I happily accepted and continued to utilize said cleaners. I doubt I could live with myself if I thought it appropriate to ask for 100 times the cost because nothing could replace that gentle worn in feeling of the old comforter… ahh perspective. I hope I can maintain at least some of it

Legal Eagle

I don't remember all the details of the judge who sued the dry cleaners, but yeah, that was ridiculous too. Why MORE ridiculous, though? Because the cost of a pair of pants has got to be less than the cost of wedding flowers? Or did you have another reason in mind? Because honestly, I think I'd be more upset about losing a fave item of clothing than flowers. But again, I don't have the "large wedding" mindset.
Law & economics approaches to our field are so ascendant that I think we lose sight of how silly this can be, big picture. In cases of serious loss—workplace injury, accidental death—we have fairly strong reason to try to frame pain & suffering in a monetary amount. But when the stakes are lower, maybe law & econ should take a backseat to common sense. I don't care what Gary Becker or Richard Posner think—I'm with the crowd that not everything can or should be commensurate with dollars. Cents and sense are homonyms, not synomyms!
(And even if Becker et alia are right, how bloated does your ego have to be for you to actually suffer the dollar equivalent of $400,000 worth of pain over off-color flowers or one lost pair of pants? I don't want a legal system that indulges that kind of citizen.)

KHernan881

First, the practical note:  filing a dispute with your credit card company is a really great route for something like this.  We pre-paid for limosines for my wedding and one of them showed up and was a size too small (4 passenger capacity less than needed) and didn't have an operating air-conditioning system—in Michigan, in June!  We complained on the spot but were told that the company could do nothing to fix the situation on that day.  After the event we went to the store and complained again and asked for our money back.  The limo company refused, so we complained to Visa.  Visa did an "investigation" and refused to pay the limo company for the reasonable amount that we said it shouldn't get paid.  (You CAN'T get pain and suffering damages this way.)  The credit card companies have a 90-day or so lag on the time that you are charged and the time that they pay the vendors.  Usually you have 30 days to dispute a charge and more often than not it makes more financial sense for the credit card company to withhold payment.  The offending company will not drop Visa but you may very well drop your credit card company.  Therefore, there are real incentives to make you happy in this case.  This is a way to get around the fact that you are likley a one-time customer to the wedding vendor by using your leverage against a company that you are a repeat customer to - Visa.
On the point about law and economics… I think economics is a good discipline through which to view this bride's choice.  She should have considered all of the costs associated with filing this lawsuit (just as the DC administrative court judge should have when he sued the dry cleaning business).  These costs include her reputation, her professional standing, the opinions of her clients (I haven't heard that she is a plaintiff's lawyer), and the cost of her time (she likely bills her time at a few hundred bucks an hour), the impact on the reputation of lawyers and women lawyers.  An economist would put a dollar value on every cost that is associated with this strategy.  My point is this: the costs are more than just legal fees, costs of flowers and potential recovery.  I think she blew it. I think this lawsuit will end up costing her much more than $27,000 worth of flowers. 
Last I heard the DC judge that sued over his pants is losing his job due to his display of poor judgment.  And… sadly the dry cleaners went out of business over it. 

Legal Eagle

Yeah, filing a dispute with your credit card company is relatively easy—you can do it online now. It has served me well several times when I otherwise would've gotten ripped off.
The full economic costs of the bride's lawsuit—including the "external" reputational costs to other lawyers and other brides—were not captured by the filing fee, that's for sure. I'm skeptical that it's logically possible to build a CJ system that could internalize all these costs. My comment "let's blame it on law & econ" was more than a little tongue-in-cheek, and you are right to point out that we can plausible assume that the costs were higher and Elana didn't do a good job guestimating them.
On the other hand, I'd note that you didn't try to put dollar values on any of the additional costs you mentioned, either. How in the world would we assess the external dollar costs of this news item to lawyers and women? I don't see an easy economic   answer to this kind of question.

KHernan881

it is impossible to put dollar figures on these costs.  I probably mis-spoke when I claimed that one could do that above.  However, I suppose what really matters is the relative cost and benefit.  One would have to add up all of the costs, even the intangible ones and then compare it to the benefit of this endeavor.  On that note, I suppose Elana would account for some sort of revengful satisfaction that she will personally get if she can really stick it to this flower shop.  There is a value to that, even if just to her personally and in the privacy of her own head.
For example:
Benefits = $400,000 judgment + $? feeling of satisfaction + $? benefit to future brides that won't get screwed by this shop in this manner in the future + $? benefit to society for the deterrent effect this legal victory will have on other florists (others I am sure I am not thinking of)
Compare the total benefit to the total cost:
Costs = $X.XX legal fees and expenses of the case + $X.XX opportunity cost of Elana's own billable time that will be spent on this case instead of other things + $X.XX opportunity costs of court time used for this case +$? reputational and professional costs to Elana personally + $? reputational and professional costs to women, women lawyers, brides + $? emotional stress to Elena in order to achieve satisfaction accounted for above +? increased liability insurance for florists (?) (+ others that I'm not thinking of and others that get much more esoteric)
In the end, I think the costs outweigh the benefits but that is probably because the economic value of revenge is very low in my head.  I recognize that this value may be very high for this individual plaintiff, as it is for many plaintiffs that bring lawsuits that are really more about this sort of satisfaction than they are about money.  I would also give a great amount of value to the reputational costs here.  However, as somebody pointed out in the comments on another blog, these costs may be low to this person who may be looking to exit the profession soon anyway—who knows?

RachelJewellery

Being a lawyer and a female one at that, it should be quite understood that a lot of people would hate to deal with you. Even as a female, I would think twice. Though it is unfair to the majority of us who are rational, our reputations tend to get tarnished due to a few emotional individuals.

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