Thursday, February 12, 2009



I have written that language often conceals subtle power relationships. By burrowing into common words, we can uncover revealing—and sometimes troubling—conceptual complexes. Sometimes those complexes make more sense when linked to other words. Today, I take up two words that we always see linked to one another: “attorney” and “client.” Sifting through their history and meanings, we perceive in these words a classic power relationship between a strong party and a weak party.

Many people assume that “attorneys” are simply “lawyers.” Colloquially, practicing lawyers use the two terms interchangeably. “Have you spoken to your lawyer?” means the same thing as: “Have you spoken to your attorney?” Practicing lawyers, however, prefer the term “attorney” because it sounds more rarefied. Any hack can be a “lawyer (one who crafts the law),” just as anyone can be a “bowyer (one who crafts bows),” or a “sawyer (one who works with a saw).” But only urbane, educated scholars can claim the title “attorney.” See Endnote 1.

What is the difference, then? Functionally, there is none. Attorneys are lawyers, and lawyers are attorneys. Grammatically, the two words express precisely the same idea: A person who appears on another’s behalf to represent his legal interests before a court or in a transaction. But “attorney” has a linguistic “mate,” namely, the word “client.” Attorneys represent clients. There is an “attorney-client” privilege that shields communications from disclosure. There are “attorney-client” prerogatives. And “attorneys” owe duties to their “clients” in a technical, professional sense. There is an “Attorney Disciplinary Committee” that addresses “client concerns.” An “attorney” could not exist without a “client,” and vice-versa. The question then arises: Why? What does the concept “attorney” require from the concept “client?” How do the two concepts define one another?

“Attorney” derives from the Old French verb tourner,” meaning “to turn,” and the prefix “-at,” implying action “at,” “directed towards” or “to” something. The letters “ey” at the end of the English word indicate that it derives from a French past participle, namely attournĂ©,” literally meaning “turned to,” or “person turned to.” In this etymology, we begin to see a conceptual complex involving dependence and power. After all, who is an attorney if not a person we “turn to” when in need? We “turn to” people when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances. Perhaps we confront some inscrutable dilemma. Perhaps something threatens our security or property. We “turn to” people to help overcome the problem. That necessarily means that we are somehow needful—and thus weaker—than the person to whom “we turn.”

Enter the “client.” Etymologically, it is hard to find a more pitiful creature. The dictionary begins with a straightforward definition: “1. A person…who uses the professional advice or services of a lawyer, accountant, advertising agency, architect, etc.” v. 1.1, Client Definition 1. Here, we see two interesting things. First, we see that the word “client” depends on a predicate concept, namely, a “lawyer” or some other professional. Second, we see that “clients” need “advice” or “services.” That means they face difficult circumstances. It also means they do not have sufficient knowledge to meet the challenge. After all, no one seeks advice if they already know what to do. Grammatically, then, clients are to some extent ignorant, weak and uninformed. They find themselves at the mercy of some unknown system, and they “turn to” others for guidance. They are dependents. They need help because they cannot fend for themselves. So they seek out strong, superior “lawyers.” Clients are weak; lawyers are strong. The two words intertwine with each other. Each gives meaning to the other.

Later definitions reinforce this pathetic image. The dictionary goes on to define “client” as “anyone under the patronage of another; a dependent.” v. 1.1, Client Definition 4. The word “dependent” does not have a positive ring, especially when applied to an adult. When we hear the word “dependent,” we think about defenseless children who cannot survive on their own. “Dependent” negatively contrasts “independent,” an adjective that carries strong positive connotations. “Dependent” people do not make their own money. They need others to support them. They are too weak, immature or stupid to approach life’s problems. They also stand in an inferior position with respect to the people who support them. “Dependents” must be obedient to their “sponsors.” If they are not, they lose their support, and perhaps their lives. In this light, clients appear even more pathetic than they did at first glance. They are not just ignorant, but they also depend on their superiors to stand any chance at all to survive. Against this linguistic contrast, the “attorney” appears a benevolent, all-knowing father figure who “knows what is best” for his weak, “dependent” client. Only the “attorney” knows what to do. Without him, the client would surely perish, just as a child would surely perish without its parents.

“Client” is a weak word. Its definitions reveal its role. A “client” is the inferior half in a two-person power relationship involving knowledge, dependency and advice. The definitions alone convey this image. Yet the word’s etymology provides even more emasculating detail. “Client” derives from the Latin verb “clinare,” meaning “to bend.” The Latin noun “cliens” means “a person seeking the protection or influence of someone powerful.” Client Etymology, v.1.1. Again, we see power at work in the etymological complex surrounding “attorneys” and “clients.” From an etymological standpoint, clients “bend” themselves—like weak, malleable clay—onto the shoulders of “someone powerful” for “protection.” No one seeks protection from “someone powerful” if his power is equal to or greater than the person sought. Thus, clients are necessarily weaker than their sponsors. The relationship would not exist if the client were as powerful or as learned as the attorney. More to the point, no one seeks protection in the first place if he did not face threatening circumstances. Just as a child seeks its father for help when danger looms, so too does the client seek an attorney when trouble appears. Clients are dependent. They need protection. They “bend themselves” towards “powerful” people because they are not powerful. In short, “clients” are remarkably weak, pathetic creatures.

I write all this because no one really thinks about the power relationships at work in everyday words. “Client” is especially insidious because it no longer restricts itself to professional relationships. Today, any commercial customer in any setting—even a hair salon patron—is called a “client.” How did this happen? No one should be happy to be labeled a “client.” In grammatical terms, to be a client is to be a defenseless, weak, ignorant child who depends on a strong protector for survival. Who wants to be in that position? We live our lives in an effort to be independent and self-sufficient, not dependent and weak. Why, then, has the word “client” proliferated beyond its original, professional venue? If we are labeled “clients” whenever we engage in commerce, does that mean we are all weak? Must we always be the weak party in every context?

Perhaps there is something more insidious at work here. Rather than steadily advancing with age and experience, it seems we slide into dependency whenever we seek goods or services. If we are clients as much at the hardware store as we are in the hospital, when are we ever in a superior position? Someone else always has superior knowledge. Someone else always has the answers to our questions. Someone else always knows the way, and we must seek him out for “advice.” In these circumstances, where is equality? Sadly, it appears there is none. Everywhere we look, we see yet another power disparity. It is in our language.

I will do my best never to lower myself to be a “client.” If I have to buy something, let me be a “customer,” but never a client. I will never accord fatherlike respect to an “attorney,” even if etymology and grammar tell me that I should. Attorneys are mere sorcerers who obscure banal truisms about property with faux magical language and elaborate filing procedures. I am not impressed. And I certainly will not “bend” to someone whose abilities—viewed objectively—scarcely entitle him to a “superior” position.

1 I have always found the distinction between “lawyer” and “client” absurd. It is about prestige, not meaning. “Attorney” just “sounds better” than “lawyer.” In New York City, there is a street called “Attorney Street” on the Lower East Side. It would have been somehow uncouth to call it “Lawyer Street.”

1 comment:

SteveW said...

It's part of the division of labor that we are clients in many regards. My pipes froze last week, and I was happy to be a client to my plumber. Where is the equality? Everyone who engages in gainful employment has the superior position in that one context, and is a client in all others. This is far more efficient than everyone trying to be the master of every universe.