Confessions of a General Counsel:  From Consumer to Service Provider

Are you managing your career as a consumer or as a service provider?   A consumer purchases goods and services, but a service provider is paid to create goods and services.  When consumers show up instead of service providers in the workplace, the career development ride can get bumpy.    

For many of us reading this post, the luckiest of us, school was a time where we consumed. Our teachers, parents and coaches were our service providers.  They guided us with assignments, a mandated curriculum, course suggestions, office hours, reading lists, and clubs.  It wasn't cheap; our schools received significant sums regardless of whether we went to public or private schools, whether we paid full freight or were scholarship kids, whether we played club sports or hung out on the playgrounds.   We consumed, wrapped in cocoons of goodwill and earnest hopes for bright futures.  

For me, law school was no exception.  I purchased a law education, completed my assignments and remained wrapped in a cocoon of expectation that I would be taught and guided.  The rub is that upon graduation, my bosses and clients were looking for me to produce.   See how that happened?  Instead of paying to receive an education, I was getting paid to create something that someone else purchased.  I had to learn new skills.  

If you're still in school, you're lucky.  It is one of the last places where an entire faculty, staff and administration are paid to create structure while you learn and practice the skills that will help you transition from a consumer.  If you're already in the workforce, you're still in luck because it is never too late to get in touch with your inner service provider.  Here are a few tips to get you started.       
1.  Anticipate next steps

Consumers complete assignments.  Service providers complete assignments too, then they anticipate the next steps.  Your assignments do not stand alone.  They are parts of a larger process to solve a problem or answer a question.  The best service providers anticipate the next step in the process.  After you finish an assignment, take some time to imagine that you are your client.  How does your work fit into the larger process?  What demands does your client face, such as looming deadlines, litigation, staffing shortages, multi-party communication issues, an imminent new product launch?   How is this client different or similar to other clients?  Based on this exercise, is there anything else that the client might want to know after reading your assignment?  Did you present your points as clearly as possible?  It is not necessary to change your work-product if changes are not appropriate, but this exercise will help you learn to understand a client's priorities and anticipate her follow-up questions.     

2.  The work does not belong to you

Consumers turn in their assignments.  Service providers create and deliver work product for their clients.  If you are in school or taking a course you only hurt yourself and your grade if you fail to finish a research project or re-edit a paper.  As a service provider, these failures hurt your clients and by extension your reputation.  You receive significant compensation to provide a deliverable, so do your best work.  Do not assume that someone else will correct it.  On the other hand, be grateful when your boss does take the time to review your work and provide comments.  It doesn't always feel gratifying, especially after the second or third major revision, but this is a valuable exercise to help you learn how to anticipate the next steps.  

3. Invest in relationships 

Consumers invest time at networking events.  Service providers invest in people.  Building an effective network is an important investment for all service providers.  Networks can be sources of information.  It is often your network that will know the information you will need to navigate new positions and assignments.  For instance, one of the best ways to learn how to anticipate your clients' needs is through networking.  You don't have to guess what challenges they have, you can ask them directly.  You can also ask others (like your bosses or peers) who may have the information.  Sometimes networking can feel like an empty word, so try these tricks to make it more real.  First, just be curious.  Think of networking as a way to learn about people who share your solar system.  Second, get targeted.  Think about your goals for the next three-six months and the gaps that you have to close to meet those goals.  Can you think of anybody who has done what you want to accomplish?  Consider asking that person for her story and advice.  Third, choose an industry association and think about joining a committee.  Not only are associations wonderful sources of information, but they also are full of professionals from all backgrounds who are willing to share knowledge.  Working on a committee side by side with association members can spark fruitful relationships that last for decades. Fourth, it takes years to build relationships.  Don't worry if your network feels thin today.  Start building it slowly.  In a few years, you will look around and be surprised at the people you've helped and those who have offered you guidance.     

4. Even your bosses and your professors are clients

Consumers have bosses and professors.  Service providers have clients who happen to be bosses and professors.  Your boss is perhaps your most important client.  She is not there to merely critique your work and give you direction.  She also relies on your work to complete her own projects and provide a service to other paying clients. Before you turn in an assignment, ask yourself whether you have anticipated her next question.  Do you understand her goals and have you created the best product to help her meet her goals?  Have you built a relationship where you can ask her questions, or have you built a relationship with others who have some experience with the type of problem she is trying to solve?  If you are still in law school, shift your perspective just a bit to see your professors as your clients.  Imagine that you are a professor. How would you feel about students who are curious about the subject you teach?  What type of help would you give a student who has tried to anticipate the next step?  How is that student different from the one who simply turns in an assignment?  
The consumer to service provider evolution is gradual.  It starts for some in school.  For others, it starts in earnest after graduation.  The important thing to remember is that the ability to adjust to this new role is one of the factors that impacts career success.   

What are some of the lessons that you have learned during your evolution to service provider?  What do you wish you'd learned earlier?  Let me know in the comments below.  


Delida Costin is the former general counsel of Pandora Media and  She is also a proud alum of Boston University School of Law. She frequently speaks about leadership, legal practice and diversity. 

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I really enjoyed your article! After my freshman year I spent my summer at an international law firm that really emphasized client service, and since then I’ve been thinking about what GCs want from law firms. I love that your article takes it a step further and suggests viewing bosses/profs as clients. Great mindset, great practice!


I’m glad it resonated with you, Gennie!  I’m looking forward to following you, and your posts, this year.


Very insightful post.  Being on this side of law school, I wish students were less consumer-oriented.  I think if more looked at the practice of law, beginning with their education, as service, it would make the transition to “Service Provider.”  I really like the suggestions you give to students for looking at profs as clients. 
Looking forward to following your posts this year.


Great article Delida. And thanks for your awesome comments on other writers’ blogs. Keep up the great work.

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