image Having worked in academia, I can tell you without hesitation that professors — especially scientists — are the most petty people of all when it comes to titles. I remember being scolded by a chemist for calling him an “assistant professor” instead of an “associate professor” (and not in a friendly tone, either).

And if you know your mythology, you’re aware that you can have power over someone if you know his ‘true name’ — Rumpelstiltskin being a perfect example. Parents use that today when they want their children to pay attention: “Samuel Wallace Ireland Kantor, you come here right now!

Names matter.

Which is why we say that Realtors® are real estate agents, not “real estate sales people” or “real estate listers” or “assistants” or anything else. The word agent is important. It’s not a matter of ego or pay scale, either. It’s a matter of law.

Under the law, as an agent you have certain responsibilities that the grocery-store cashier doesn’t. For one, you’re required to always, always act in your clients’ best interests. The guy at Electronics-R-Us trying to sell you $30 gold-plated cables has no such obligation; he can’t outright lie, but he doesn’t have to help you make the best choice. (Hint: With digital equipment there’s no difference.)

But civilians don’t always understand your role. A potential buyer looking at a $300K listing of yours might say to his wife, “Heck, I’d be willing to go to $350K for this,” not realizing that it’s your duty to pass that information along to your client.

Or you might take on the role of a dual agent, then end up with angry clients who expect you to do more for them, not realizing that the law severely restricts you. That won’t help Realtors’ reputations: “I can’t believe she told the seller what I said!” or “What do you mean you can’t tell me whether I should drop the price?”

That’s why we worked to change Virginia’s agency law this year. It’s about transparency, and about making sure that you’re protected from miscommunication or misunderstanding.

In a sense it’s codifying best practices. You should already be explaining your role clearly to everyone in a transaction: “Please understand, Mr. Smith, that I work for the Joneses and my job is to act in their best interests” or “As a dual agent, I’ll be unable to offer you advice on the contract.” But not everyone does.

So yes, there are some new rules to follow and some new forms to use. (Don’t worry. They’re simple.) But the minor inconvenience is far outweighed by the clarity and transparency they’ll add to relationships — and the trouble they’ll save Realtors in the long run.