You could count on a handshake.
What about now? What has changed?
From the internet and technology, to firm break ups and mergers and to globalization and alternate business structures, the legal marketplace has experienced rapid change. Comparison shopping is at an all time high while client loyalty is at an all time low, no matter which side of the desk you’re sitting on.
Lawyers can no longer necessarily count on a firm for employment for life. The same goes for a firm counting on the loyalty of its lawyers and its clients. Competing firms are always just a mouse click, referral or RFP away, and new options for the delivery of legal services are springing up everyday.
Let’s face it, over the past twenty years the very foundation of the legal sector has shifted. Legal work can be outsourced overseas at tremendous cost savings. New technologies for electronic discovery are replacing people and, according to some, adding both efficiencies and savings. Consumers of legal services now have the option to incorporate and prepare wills online. Self representation and the unbundling of legal services are trends that challenge the traditional lawyer-client relationship.
There has even been talk of big box retailers and non-lawyer owned firms offering legal services in Canada, mirroring developments in the UK and Australia.
With all these changes comes justifiable uncertainty about the future, and the result has been a lot of lawyers looking over their shoulders with anxiety.
What is the role of trust in this brave new world?
This shouldn’t be that hard a nut to crack. It lies at the very heart of lawyers’ ethical commitments and is the core value at the foundation of every lawyer’s professional dealings.
We all intuitively know what trust is. We know when we feel it. We know when we don’t. And we know that if it’s to be sustainable and meaningful, it must be reciprocal. If you want someone to trust you, you need to trust them too.
Lawyers and firms, nonetheless, can no longer take it for granted that trust will be afforded to them, as a given. They will benefit, as a result, when they provide clarity to colleagues and clients on how their trust will be earned, reciprocated and enhanced. They can do so by being accountable and transparent – by delivering on promises made and by committing to repair and rebuild each and every time there has been a challenge.
For inspiration, let’s look to some best practices that influence the decision to trust – practices that can have an impact on every legal professional’s behaviour, no matter which role he or she plays in the firm:
1. Inviting honesty and openness – Transparency builds loyalty. But this guiding principle can present challenges when dealing with organizational or personal change. That said, even when sharing information isn’t possible, there’s always a way to show good faith.
2. Considering the interest of others – There may be a time and place for win-lose scenarios in life. But they don’t work when there’s an ongoing relationship. While looking out for themselves, trustworthy individuals also look out for others. Win-win scenarios may require the investment of a little more time and creativity but they’re feasible more often than we try. And fairness goes a long way towards establishing trust.
3. Being consistent – Consistency is just as much about communicating thoroughly and across the board as it is about follow through. Fulfilling promises establishes integrity. It removes riskiness for those evaluating the decision to trust. Nobody gets into trouble for being clear, predictable or even redundant. They get into trouble for playing favourites, delivering mixed messages and telling lies.
4. Ensuring issues don’t fester – Trust takes work and courage to cultivate. Trustworthy individuals don’t choose silence over difficult conversations. They know that while it may seem easier in the short term, it will almost certainly get worse over the long term.
5. Trusting others – Asking for trust may be easy. Giving it can prove to be more difficult, however. If there are obstacles getting in the way of giving trust to others, they need to be identified and removed. This guiding principle isn’t an item on a ‘To do’ list. It’s a process. It requires commitment and dedication, as it’s natural for anyone to revert to an old way of behaving.
If it’s time for a new paradigm for trust in law firms, let’s consider one that establishes realistic approaches that work within our current legal sector, for the firm and each of its players. A paradigm that, while being responsive to the modern context, places value on that old-fashioned human touch.
Nobody is entitled to be trusted. Trust has to be earned, in real time, everyday. It’s a matter of continual practice and commitment.
Interestingly, the handshake as a symbol of trust appears on so many legal websites and law blogs across the country that it has become an overused cliche. Today’s law firms can reclaim the handshake as a modern symbol of their commitment to trustworthiness in all dealings with clients, colleagues and the profession.
Beyond that, a culture of trustworthiness directly benefits law firms, both strategically and financially.
Trust can be leveraged as a competitive edge. If attained within the walls of a firm, it naturally seeps through to all the firm’s relationships.
A culture of trustworthiness can drive a firm’s profitability.
Consider this powerful statistic. The culture of a workplace has been found to account for nearly a third of its financial results.
Law firms and lawyers can build their own modern concept of trust, based on realistic promises, consistent messages, win-win scenarios and ongoing demonstrations of sincere good faith to clients, employees and each other. That’s just good business practice.
Firms that succeed in mastering the modern trust challenge by turning it into opportunity will reap rewards from loyalty and sustainability to profitability.
All it takes is a handshake that can really be counted on.