Building Trust: The Inviolable Rule

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By Sean Larkan | Jun 27, 2016

With all the attention given to the external forces bringing about change and impacting the legal profession, we sometimes forget how much of successful legal services business is still about human relationships and building trust. Trust is the key building block for so many different areas and interactions in law firms: one that impacts just about every aspect of our existence and our success or failure. Look at any successful firm and you will find they have managed to build trust in some or most of the ways highlighted below. Often it is by accident; ideally it is also by design.

Trust is something we can all understand: we know how we feel when we trust an organisation. We will sometimes ‘buy now and ask questions later’. We will assume their product or service, and even what they say about it, is tried and tested and is good. We will refer others to that organisation. We will be loyal to it. We may even suggest to a bright young star that they should apply to work for that organisation. In some respects it becomes an organisation that in our mind doesn’t have many if any substitutes.

There are very few so–called “black and white” or inviolable rules in the areas of leadership and management of a law firm – one, however, is this underpinning, foundational role of trust. As leaders and managers, we ignore it at our peril.

Let’s consider some areas within our professional businesses where trust is this central element:

  • whether leaders will be successful in taking their firm, their colleagues and staff with them;
  • how effectively support service managers will undertake their roles;
  • whether key client relationships will be enduring;
  • whether the firm’s brand is trusted enough to bring in a steady flow of work, and win key projects;
  • whether high calibre personnel will instinctively want to join the firm as employees or partners;
  • whether staff feel truly engaged in the firm – will they want to make their careers at the firm, stay with the firm and go the extra mile for the firm?
  • the impact of trust on staff turnover and the costs associated with that;
  • whether clients will pay bills promptly;
  • Aside from the firm’s brand and pulling power, will partners individually be able to attract work?
  • Will the very best service providers drop everything to do work for the firm?
  • Will clients will do everything they can to appoint individual partners to do their work, or refer others to those same partners?

The challenge in addressing something like trust, particularly as it impacts so many different areas of a firm, is to get this message through to everyone in the firm beyond intellectually, and make it stick. It is important that everyone in the firm understands this. After all, every interaction they have with others, and how they go about their work, impacts trust in one or more of the ways mentioned above.

This will require a convincing argument, and moving people at the firm beyond the usual casual ‘Yeah I get that. It’s obvious, and I will bear it in mind’ attitude. Somehow they need to be moved to actually do something about it. Otherwise it continues to be one of those important things that everyone agrees on, but little gets done about it.

How do you address this from a practical perspective? Some examples:

  • ensure everyone understands concepts like Brand Fusion – ensuring that what you offer and promise is actually delivered – especially important for employment brands;
  • build the concept of trust into your leadership development training and coaching;
  • ensure that trust and its impact are fully understood by all in the firm, and that it is covered in your values or guiding principles;
  • make trust part of your expectations in terms of partner or staff performance criteria and contributions;
  • build principles like responsiveness and reliability into all of the above and make it part of the firm’s DNA;
  • ensure that everyone who has staff reporting to them takes a genuine interest in them and is accountable for building trusted professional and working relationships with them – we do this via our Responsible Partner® program;

The benefits can be immense:

  • trusted leadership and management;
  • high levels of staff engagement with positive impacts on employment brand, staff turnover, recruitment effectiveness;
  • dramatically improved team performance;
  • improved financial results with excellent working capital management;
  • enduring client relationships where key clients become marketing gate-keepers, referring other potential clients to the firm;
  • a brand for which there is deemed to be no substitute – in Marty Neumeier’s words (The Brand Gap) a ‘charismatic brand’;
  • the very best service providers beating a path to your door; and ultimately,
  • lasting differentiation which is difficult for competitors to replicate.

So it is worth discussing all the implications of building trust with partners and staff, building their understanding around this, and getting their active involvement and support. No-one in the firm should ever again under-estimate the central and far-reaching importance of trust.