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  Special Feature

The Parallel Lives of Technicians and Lawyers

Posted 4/1/2009
By Marcy Tieger

You'd be surprised at how many things technicians and lawyers have in common.

Last November, I attended a banquet held by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) to honor 37 technicians from all over the country who had distinguished themselves by placing among the highest-scoring automotive professionals holding ASE credentials. While sitting through the awards portion of the event, it came to me ... the realization that technicians and lawyers are actually kindred spirits.

Although I have know-how as a lawyer, my experience working on cars is limited to changing the oil in my first car, a 1965 Volkswagen Bug. Alas, now 32 years later, I helplessly and dutifully make a bee line to my technician when the service light comes on, as perfectly scripted by the Volvo folks in Sweden; I mean, New Jersey.

I met my technician through a referral from a co-worker named Jen, a big, brassy, blonde legal secretary. No one messes with Jen. She vetted this guy, which means she found him trustworthy. Although many people assume that if you are a lawyer you are as well-equipped to do battle as someone big and brassy, truth be told, I seldom mention my profession in personal transactions as it tends to be off-putting to people providing services to me.

I suppose I feel a certain kinship with technicians because we have so much in common. We are both skilled in areas of a highly technical nature. Our customers like that we are highly skilled, but they sometimes resent it because they think it means we're better situated to pull the wool over their eyes. People come to us because they have to, not because they want to, and they often feel like they are taking a leap of faith when they ask, "Can you fix it?"

Technicians and lawyers both want their customers to feel at ease, and often require some time to figure out (diagnose, research) what the problem is. We believe we are being thoughtful and thorough; the people we are serving only hear, "This is gonna cost you." Customers adopt a protective armor to avoid the possibility of rip-offs - they ask technicians to leave the old parts in the trunk, even though they wouldn't know a fan assembly from a hamster wheel. With lawyers, customers hint that they may "run this by" their brother-in-law, the family law attorney, even though you have just given advice about a business litigation matter.

When we fix the problem, our customers often grudgingly pay their bills and ask us to explain (again) each thing that we did.

We ungrudgingly comply because we understand we're speaking a foreign language and because, very simply, this is what good [technicians/lawyers] do. We even understand that because the people we serve have just paid for something they felt they had to do, they are sometimes sparing in their thank-yous. We get it.

The similarities between technicians and lawyers were never more apparent than when I attended the ASE awards ceremony. Let me set the stage: You are a technician for 25 years. You have your own shop or you work for someone, maybe an independent, maybe a dealer. You know you're one of the best. You take comfort in that fact because you truly care about what you do. You know it's not just about maintaining cars, it's about personal safety. You care about staying current; you read, attend seminars and take the ASE tests, sometimes as many as 30 of them, to maintain your certification in a multitude of areas of technical expertise. Then one year, you get a call from ASE telling you that you knocked it out of the park on your certification tests, along with an invitation to an event to honor you for what you do without any expectation of fanfare or fuss.

All of the recipients of the ASE awards were allowed 15 seconds to give an acceptance speech, and everyone was amazingly compliant about this time constraint. (This is perhaps one area where lawyers - most of whom are natural-born hams - are dissimilar from technicians.) Apparently technicians, like lawyers, can be difficult to live with, because nearly all of the recipients thanked their spouses for "putting up with" them. But what moved me most, was the guys who talked about the "little things" they did; probably, in many instances, things they weren't paid for and the customer was unaware of, just to make sure the repair was perfect and the customer was safe. And of course, there was the unabashed sweetness in the gratitude for being honored so grandly when you work in a profession where just getting your bill paid is supposed to be thanks enough.

I totally get it. Although I stopped practicing law a couple of years ago, I still have (and cherish) every thank-you note, every letter that was sent to a boss commending me, and even the little Post-its with "Thanks, Marcy" that were thrown in a bill payment envelope when I had my own firm, spanning 21 years.

In approximately 256 miles my service light will come on and the sweet siren song of my Volvo S70 will tell me it is time to visit my technician. But this time it will be different. Although I cannot promise I will refrain from asking truly inane questions, perhaps even two or three in a row, I will now ask them with a greater sense of empathy, understanding and gratitude. After all, my technician and I are kindred spirits.

Marcy Tieger Marcy Tieger is a consultant with Symphony Advisors LLC, a firm focused on delivering strategic, operational and financial advisory services to the automobile aftermarket parts and services supply chain and to automobile insurance physical damage claims organizations. She has a bachelor's and master's degree from California State University, Fullerton, and a juris doctorate from Western State University, College of Law. She can be reached at marcy.tieger@symphonyadvisorsllc.com.

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