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Trust. A little word for a huge concept. A commodity that, in life as well as in business, is one of the hardest to earn but the easiest to lose. It can be argued to be the foundation of every successful business, because whether you are providing world class legal services or selling fruit on a street stall, a customer is much more likely to buy what you have if they trust you.

A recent article by Susan Duncan of Rainmaking Oasis has explored the nature of trustworthiness in business development and client relations. Here we take a look at some of the ideas that Duncan discusses.

Much of Duncan’s approach is based on a formula known as The Trust Equation, as explained in The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford. This formula dictates that trust (T) = credibility (C) + reliability (R) + intimacy (I), divided by self-orientation (S). By scoring each commodity we end up with a trust score. Say, for example, a potential client scoring your business out of 10 for each commodity gives you 6 points each for C, R and I (Total: 18 out of a potential 30, thereby rating you slightly above average for each of these), but then scores you 8 for S (meaning that they consider you significantly more interested in your own success than in theirs) your overall T score will be 2.25 (18 divided by 8). If, however, they give you 9 each for C, R and I (27) but 2 for S (meaning that they consider you to be heavily invested in their success regardless of your own), your overall T score will be a healthier 13.5 (27 divided by 2).

Conceptually this equation is a fairly straightforward route to understanding the notion of trustworthiness. It has inevitable weaknesses, of course – not the least of which is how to achieve genuine consistency in a scoring system that is very subjective – but for Duncan’s purposes it illustrates her concepts well as she takes each commodity in turn. Importantly, at the outset she points out that in the legal sector all too many lawyers expend all their energy on building trust with clients and overlook building it with other lawyers within their own firms, thereby missing out on many potential opportunities to grow the business by drawing on in-house expertise to assist with additional issues a client may have.

Credibility usually involves lawyers communicating expertise in words, something most consider themselves remarkably good at whilst the reality may not always clear the high bar they set themselves. Duncan advocates a collaborative approach between lawyers and clients here. The aim should be to avoid simply presenting a client with a list of what needs to be done and instead to communicate by talking through past successes. The former tells a client what you think they should do, but asks them simply to accept it on faith. The latter shows a client that a fund of experience leads you to a conclusion on the best course of action and, in the process. It is a much more credible approach. 

Reliability comes through doing what you say you will do, on time, multiple times. Duncan offers suggestions to do this, including being consistent on deadlines and costs, communicating well and in a timely way, making and keeping realistic promises, and being consistent in approach. All of these, and many others quoted by her, encourage a client to feel they can rely on your services.

Where intimacy is concerned, again Duncan offers a helpful list of suggestions compiled from responses given by participants in her workshops. She stresses that although some lawyers do develop personal friendships with their clients it is not necessary to go too far. Generally speaking, her advice is tailored toward making clients feel that you understand their personal situation and needs. Confidentiality is key here, and clients must feel free to speak openly about any matters that may be of concern to them when in your presence. Get to know them. Encourage them to open up to you by opening up to them. Discuss non-workplace topics such as family events, hobbies, personal aspirations, etc. Above all, make them feel valued and loved even if the process of doing so feels a little scary to the lawyer.

On the final point of self-orientation it is, perhaps, worth looking in rather more detail here at what Duncan has to say as this is the part of the Trust Equation on which pretty much everything hinges. Her advice is don’t rush to solutions; take thinking time; don’t assume anything about what is right for an individual client; give truthful answers; don’t conceal; don’t dominate a conversation, especially by telling and retelling self-congratulatory stories; don’t interrupt; don’t look bored; don’t look desperate; don’t imply that you are always right; be prepared to take the blame as well as the credit; don’t appear argumentative; don’t boast and, finally, don’t try to cross-sell services unless you are absolutely sure that the client needs them.

An issue with any concept like this is that it is easier to talk about than to do, and when doing so it is easier to stand and look backwards than to walk forwards. Telling someone what they did wrong, with the result that they appeared less trustworthy, is fine. Talking in a focused, workshop environment about what they ought to have done, that would have been right, but did not do, is also fine. But consider the training of, say, military personnel or emergency responders. Here understanding what went wrong in a given situation is important, and understanding the concept of how to do it better is similarly essential, but both of these are only part of the necessary training of minds to function correctly in high stress situations. 

A meeting between a lawyer and a client may seem to be a very different environment, but that doesn’t mean it is not high stress. If a client needs a lawyer’s services in the first place then we might assume some stress is involved – whether because of a specific problem or just a need for expertise the client doesn’t have themselves –  and if the lawyer is following Duncan’s advice on avoiding self-orientation then they should be mindful of, and even empathetic to, that stress. So in that room at that moment the lawyer should be entirely focused on the legal advice they need to give and not be thinking about the workshop they attended three weeks ago where they were told something that they can’t quite remember about what they’re meant to maybe be doing now in an ideal world.

The heart of the issue in analysing lawyer-client relationships is that the successful firms not only think their way correctly through these issues but they also feel their way correctly through them. Dealing in the established facts of what was actually said in a meeting or conversation and criticizing it to ‘see what we can learn’ is apt to lead to a kind of ‘end backwards’ approach of always being wise after the event. To lift Susan Duncan’s excellent advice out of the realm of theory and into practice in a demonstrably successful way requires a training of legal minds that goes beyond the conceptual and into the instinctive.