Building Trust in the Practice of Law



[co-author: Patrice Yermia]*

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on interpersonal relations, making now the ideal time to rethink exactly how we work, communicate and interact. Trust – or more precisely, building trust and building it well – underpins the whole process of how we relate to each other.

In this article, we argue that, where trust is lacking, important soft skills, such as persuading and motivating, become seriously impeded.

To test the impact of trust on the quality of a final legal product, we conducted a survey and interviewed people from the legal profession and business world about the importance of trust in relationships, both between in-house and external lawyers, and between lawyers and the business people they advise. We also reviewed academic research into how people build trust, and how trust comes into play in a business context.

The science of trust

Trust is a dynamic process, which ebbs and flows like the tides. Trust is never offered forever. Rather, it is fragile and may strengthen or weaken depending upon the quality of the relationship. The reason for this fragility, especially now, is that social connection lies at the core of trust and is the crucial ingredient at the human level.

Events have conspired against us, placing unprecedented strains and obstacles on interpersonal bonds. Who has been able to truly nurture connections of late? Anxiety in our everyday existence impedes us from building security and stability in our professional lives. As our circumstances have changed markedly, the means of gaining and maintaining trust are more important now than they have been for generations.

Pain and gain

We all inherently want to feel appreciated, recognized, valued, respected, liked. Individuals want to be part of something bigger.

If someone hits you in the jaw or treads on your foot, a strong electrical signal heads straight for your brain’s pain centre. By the same token, if you are excluded from an activity or not picked for the team, a signal heads straight for the very same part of your brain. Both types of pain, physical and emotional, light up the brain and are recorded in the neurological system in precisely the same way! What’s this got to do with trust? Social exclusion creates emotional pain and this in turn destroys trust and the social bond.

Landmark research by Professor Paul Zak shows that higher levels of trust can lead to noticeable improvements in performance (“The Neuroscience of Trust”). He argues that creating a high-trust culture in an organization helps us stay engaged over the long term. More oxytocin is released in our brains, translating to greater trust if we create the right environment. This directly impacts the law-business triangle: in-house lawyers, business and law firm lawyers.

Various factors affect trust and how it is perceived. Age, seniority, hierarchical position and role in the organization impact how trust is obtained, perceived, and maintained over time. The persons whose trust you seek will—consciously or unconsciously—assess your behavior to determine if they can grant you trust safely.

Focusing now on lawyers and legal teams, similar evaluations will occur based on perceived competencies, the atmosphere in the legal department, team diversity, etc. In essence, people are trying to answer this simple question: Is this legal department a place where I feel secure?

Trust and culture

Trust develops in significantly different ways depending on your culture. In certain cultures, trust is given upfront, in others it must be earned and nurtured. We have come to believe, from our own experience and from research, that if greater trust is offered from the get-go, it immediately creates a cognitive bias in the form of a bond. And this bond exists at the neuronal level/brain level for all involved.

Do you trust with your head or with your heart? According to Professor Erin Meyer, this largely depends on your culture, and it is important to understand these cultural subtleties in order to avoid misunderstandings. There are two basic types of trust: cognitive trust and affective trust. Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability. Trust from the head. Affective trust comes from feelings of emotional closeness ‒ parents, spouses, old friends. Trust from the heart.

Professor Meyer found that in “task-based” cultures such as the US, Denmark, Germany, Australia and the UK, business people are much more likely to develop work bonds based largely on cognitive trust. In China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and India, trust is more “relationship-based” and is built through developing a personal bond. In the business world of those cultures, cognitive and affective trust are not separate but woven together.

Speed of trust

As Stephen Covey puts it in his book The Speed of Trust, the seminal reference on trust: “Trust always affects two outcomes. Speed and Cost.” Essentially, when trust gets depleted, or is broken then fluidity, efficiency, and progress suffers and expenses shoot upward. Conversely, when trust is high, productivity increases and costs fall.

Trust wins clients

In The Trusted Advisor, David Maister et al. assert that trustworthiness is a fundamental component in winning new business and retaining clients. The equation used is: Trustworthiness = (Credibility x Reliability x Intimacy)/Self-Orientation. Hence, service providers should focus on the elements needed to build trust, such as listening, investing in the relationship, and being available and responsive when needed. The less ego comes into play, the quicker trust is gained.

Lawyers and trust: Survey findings

Now to our survey. We will share with you our findings on how trust works in the lawyer-business paradigm. We asked a population of more than 100 in-house lawyers, lawyers working in law firms, and business people this question: “When working with lawyers, what are the key elements that can boost or reduce trust?”

Overall main lessons learned from Business and In-house lawyers

  • Be transparent, always ensure the key actors share your level of information.
  • Show you are available for the business and will hit deadlines.
  • Practice active listening, ask questions, invite questions.
  • Show your enthusiasm for the project.
  • Know your limits, be honest if you need extra legal support.
  • Encourage collective intelligence and bring together lawyers and business people to find the best solutions.
  • Show courage and don’t hesitate to disagree in a constructive manner.

How lawyers working in law firms responded

Individual responses highlighted the importance of “visible engagement”, “knowing the subject area”, “the ability to say I don’t know but I’ll look it up”, “confidence that someone is being honest and truthful with me”, “what is best about trust is it saves you a lot of time”, “I don’t trust people because I believe they are worth it. I trust them because it makes my life easier”.

How business leaders responded

Business people insisted on simplicity and authenticity in relationships, clarity of language, and conscientious communication. They felt that what is most detrimental to trust is an arrogant, “know it all” attitude, whereas there is great strength in showing humility and admitting doubt in complicated situations.

Verbatim on trust between in-house and outside counsel

  • External lawyers are partners, part of the team. The client company plays a key role in fostering “team spirit,” and embedding the law firm into the project.
  • As real partners, lawyers in law firms should help identify and assess risks, but without being averse to risk.
  • Describing risks without coming up with adaptive or creative mitigation measures puts trust at risk.
  • Failing to respect a budget of fees agreed upfront damages trust.

In a nutshell

We are now more than a year and a half into the worldwide shift that was catapulted by COVID-19. Many individuals and organizations are hungry for concrete signs of trustworthiness, while at the same time trying to demonstrate that they too are worthy of trust.

As we press on in our new business circumstances, we should all make a habit of checking the current level of trust that exists between ourselves and our internal clients, our boss, our team, and our external partners. But how can we do this? Listening and interviewing many of you has led us to this conclusion: better cultivate trust in both professional and personal situations, go for depth. Keep exchanges from being merely transactional. Stay curious and respectful of the human before you. Kick your ego to the backseat, and let your better self take the wheel to drive the connection forward.

Trust evolves over time; it is never offered, obtained, or secured without the vulnerability needed to shift to another level. Trust is fragile, because it is very human. So above all, we need to focus on being human first, and lawyers second.

*Vice President General Counsel, Total Marketing Services

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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