Biglaw Clients and Gym Customers: What’s the Difference? Turns Out, Not Much

The more I’ve written about my contrasting experiences of working in Biglaw and working at the gym (for a quick recap, check out this post and this one), the more I find myself thinking about new aspects of those jobs to write about.

Recently, I’ve been struck more by a similarity than a difference when it comes to Biglaw vs. the gym. Obviously, the two work environments are totally different, but they share one striking thing: the Biglaw client and the gym customer are one and the same.

Difficult or Easy, They’re the Same People

Working at the gym is not rocket science, but it does involve a lot of customer interaction. When interviewing candidates at the gym, the manager’s main concern is whether a new person will be able to deal with all types of people.

When the manager interviewed me, she asked if I would be comfortable interacting with customers, some of whom could be…(pause)…”difficult” (a euphemism, I knew, for rude and entitled). I smiled and explained that I’d be fine because I already knew these people. Why?

Well, because, you know the woman who is exceptionally rude to the check-in girl at the gym at 6 am who is just trying her best to do her job? She’s the same woman who will cut everyone in the shower line at the gym so she gets to go first; she’s the same woman who is rude to the guy at the corner store where she gets her daily coffee; and, by 8 am, when she’s made it to her desk at work, she’s the same woman who will start firing off rude emails and making urgent phone calls about non-urgent matters.

So, yes, since I was often at the receiving end of those rude emails and urgent phone calls while in Biglaw, I was sure I’d be fine I interacting with the “difficult” gym customers.

The Difficult Ones

As in most industries, the client is king in Biglaw. They are the ones paying the big bucks and the ones you have to do everything you can to please, so needless to say they can get away with a lot. They are notoriously demanding and expect nothing but the best. Most are pleasant but some are not.

I came across my fair share of “difficult” clients in Biglaw. The ones who wanted an answer when they wanted it, no matter the hour, and the ones who would complain (loudly) when they felt they weren’t being catered to. A select few didn’t understand that the world didn’t revolve around them so they were particularly demanding.

As for the gym customers, since I’d taken classes at these types of gyms in the past and shelled out my own money for expensive classes, I knew these classes tended to attract some high-maintenance customers, too. These people are even more visible when you are at the receiving end of one of their demands.

It takes a few years, but one of the most transferable skills you learn on the job as a Biglaw lawyer is how to deal with these difficult people and situations. From my time at the gym, I’ve learned that no matter where you go next, whether it is a minimum wage job at the gym, a job at a tech company as in-house counsel, or staying at home with your kids, this skill will certainly come in handy.

The Easy Ones

In complete contrast to the difficult clients and customers I just described above are the nice, unassuming, easy-going and respectful ones. This is, thankfully, the majority of gym customers and most Biglaw clients, too. (I am going to cut the Biglaw clients some slack because it is a lot harder to be nice 100% of the time when work situations can get very stressful. It’s much easier to be pleasant when you are working out on a Saturday afternoon.)

My take-away about the pleasant and easygoing customers is the same as with the difficult ones – deep down, people will show their true colors no matter where they are, whether it’s the office or the gym.

The People Are the Same, But For Some Reason I Am Different

My new work setting might be different but the people are the same and I am the same. Still, for some reason, something is different – I am somehow worse at dealing with difficult situations at the gym than I was in Biglaw.

If anything, I should be more confident at the gym, since the stakes are so much lower and the issues are not usually difficult to resolve (most involve caving in to a demanding client and giving them something for free). But I’m less confident. What gives?

I’ve realized how much a person’s own behavior is a reflection of how he or she is treated.

At the gym, customers have no idea that I went to law school and worked as a lawyer for almost ten years, and nobody cares. (Of course, being a lawyer doesn’t make you better than anyone else – but it certainly does garner more respect. I’m not saying it should, just saying this is my experience.)

When a customer is giving me a hard time or demanding something unreasonable, it feels as though they think that I don’t know what I’m doing, have no authority, won’t be able to figure out their issue or am overall just “less” than they are. This attitude comes across in how they speak to me, which, in turn, affects how I react

Turns out, I was better at handling demanding clients in Biglaw because of how they treated me – respectfully and like I had something important to say.

How did I figure out that this was the issue? Well, I did a few uncharacteristic things at the gym that my former Biglaw persona would not have accepted or put up with that forced me to think about what was going on.

I came home from a shift one day and was so mad at myself. That morning, two parents had walked into the gym to take a class and they had two children in tow. I assumed either the mom or the dad was there to take the class and that the other parent was planning to leave with the kids and run some errands and come back later, but I was wrong.

The couple waltzed up to the desk, informed me that their “very well-behaved” kids (I had already seen them running around like maniacs outside) would be waiting in the studio while they both took the class. When I told them that they were not allowed to leave their kids unattended while they both took class (it’s our gym’s policy – we are a gym, not a daycare), they became angry, shrugged me off and said the kids would be fine and insisted that they were both taking the class.

It was a super busy Saturday morning, nobody else was around to back me up and I didn’t feel like fighting, so I caved. They had steamrolled right over me and gotten their way, throwing their kids on the couch with an iPad and instructions to “sit still.”

I 100% had the authority to tell them no. In fact, my manager, who wasn’t there yet, would have been really mad at me for letting the kids stay because this was a liability we were not supposed to take on. During the whole class, I was constantly checking in on the little angels to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves and was so relieved when they finally left, without any incident.

I broke the rules for someone who was rude and then I spent an hour stressing over these random kids I shouldn’t have been watching in the first place. Why did I do this to myself? Simple – the way I was spoken to, like I was less-than, made me second-guess myself and acquiesce to someone who was “better” than me. I was so mad at myself and vowed to stick up for myself (and the gym’s rules!) the next time some difficult customer comes in. It’s hard to do, but I need to channel my Biglaw confidence even when I’m not being spoken to like a lawyer.

In contrast to how I’m sometimes viewed at the gym, when I started my Biglaw job I knew absolutely nothing about the law (seriously, nothing), but because I had the title of lawyer, with that came a lot of credibility and respect (for the most part).

I’m so fortunate to have experienced both sides of this – both being respected solely because of my position and not given much respect for the same reason. It will help me stick up for myself better now. For those who haven’t felt the other side of the coin (being respected), I hope you can dig deep in another way and have the confidence to stick up for yourself, even when you are being treated rudely.

Never Be That Client or Customer

It’s a simple lesson I thought we all learned in kindergarten but we could all use a little refresher: treat everyone the same, whether they are your lawyer, your doctor or the check-in girl at the gym. And don’t be that client or customer (you know the one) 😉

For those of you who have worked all types of jobs, have you noticed the similarities between the customers at each, or do you have a different perspective? What about how you were treated while working at each of those jobs? I’d love to hear some more views!

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