Regular readers will be familiar with Blawg Review, which encapsulates the blawgosphere’s best posts over the previous week (and which I hosted earlier this year). In a similar vein is the Carnival of Trust, the brainchild of Charles Green of Trust Matters, which highlights the best posts about trust in the business and professional workspace over the previous month. Charles invited me to host the November 2009 edition of the Carnival, and I was more than happy to accept.
Trust lies at the heart of successful lawyer-client relationships. The term “trusted advisor,” made famous by the title of one of legal consulting’s best-known books (written by Charles and co-authors David Maister and Robert Galford), remains the gold standard that lawyers and law firms want to achieve for themselves. I’ve written about trust here at Law21 on a few occasions, and you’ll probably find this edition of the Carnival to be perhaps a little more lawyer-heavy than some past versions. But there was no shortage of good candidates from numerous fields this month, and it wasn’t easy whittling them down to this final list of ten. In no particular order, here we go:
I’m cheating a little on the first entry, since this post by Bruce MacEwen appeared in September and is therefore outside the range of this Carnival. But the post was so appropriate that I think it demands inclusion here. Bruce discusses the storms raging around the question of how lawyers bill clients, specifically the age-old practice of selling legal services by the hour, and reaches this apt conclusion:
Sadly, for too many of us, clients don’t trust us with their money and we don’t trust them to reward us fairly. If you hark back to those old-fashioned typewritten bills “for professional services rendered,” didn’t they positively reek of a close, trusting relationship? The lawyer would no more exploit the client than the client would expect (hope?) the lawyer would price representation at bargain-basement levels. This seems to me to be the enormous unspoken issue in today’s debate over the billable hour. If you don’t trust someone, you want something quantifiable. And you want the “most favored nation” rate and 10% discount on top of that. If you don’t trust someone, it’s all perfectly understandable. And uneconomic. Is this what we’ve come to? So perhaps more than anything else, I find the seemingly perpetual debate about the billable hour sad. Because I can’t think about it without thinking about forfeited trust.
Continuing this theme is consultant Jim Hassett, who is compiling an unprecedented survey of law firm leaders on the subject of alternative fees. If hourly billing is a substitute for trust, then shifting to predictable, fixed, or value-based billing systems necessitates the development of trust — and that starts with transparency and a willingness to engage in actual conversation. Here’s what one managing partner had to say on the subject:
[When we are] able to sit down in a very open dialogue with our clients regarding their needs, what works best for them, and what works best for us – including how staffing impacts our economics and how we focus on trying to put the right person on the right task at the right cost – we believe that we can tailor a fee arrangement that will work for our clients and will work for us.
The theme of honest communication also runs through this post by Allison Shields, who reminds lawyers that trumped-up claims, fear-mongering tactics and generally aggressive marketing can undermine efforts to build business. Accidentally or otherwise, over-promising — either from overconfidence or insecurity, both of which are not uncommon in lawyers — can have disastrous results.
[T]he essence of the lawyer-client relationship is one of trust. If the client feels that your marketing efforts amount to a bait and switch, or if you’re hiding behind what your potential clients feel are ‘fake’ offers or false promises (whether that’s your intention or not), that trust will be lost – and trust lost is difficult, if not impossible, to repair.
If there’s anything more important than a client’s trust in his or her lawyer, it’s the citizen’s degree of trust in the institutions of justice. Although this doesn’t get a lot of attention in the blawgosphere, the whole idea of “access to justice,” which lawyers prize so highly, assumes the reality and trustworthiness of both access and justice. Here are two posts that address this issue. The first, by Enrico Schaefer, is direct and to the point:
Except for the contingency fee lawyer who may choose to represent a person without any financial means, America’s civil courtrooms are dominated by wealthy Americans and wealthy companies. If that were not bad enough, many lawyers simply get paid to play games in court. Their goal is to keep cases from reaching the merits of the action, even when they’re the plaintiff. In many instances, the courtroom is simply another business tool to exert economic leverage over a competitor. Private arbitration has not proved to be much competition to the near-monopoly that federal and state courts have over dispute resolution. Until true alternatives to the courtroom become available, civil justice will remain a constitutional right primarily for the rich.
The other post, by Dan Hull, raises an issue that has long puzzled many of us in the Canadian legal system: the election of American judges. A fundamental right upon which many people rely is “their day in court,” when they can present their case before an impartial judge who will decide the matter before her on the merits. But can you trust the judge’s impartiality? Although there’s plenty to question in a strict appointment system too, Dan points out the flaws of making judges run for office:
The popular election of state judges–permitted in some aspect in a clear majority of the states–gives the appearance of justice being “for sale.” Elected judges can be especially “bad” for good clients who do business all over the U.S. and the world. Even when elected judges are “good”–and, to be fair, there are some great ones–state systems of popularly-elected judiciary will never inspire much confidence. Elected jurists who hear and decide business disputes are steeped in a taint. The point: Judges should not have “constituents,” i.e. law firms, and their clients, who make campaign contributions. Right now, in most American states, they do. And there is no way to dress that up.
Scott Greenfield is a criminal defence lawyer who’s never reluctant to challenge the justice system’s institutional failures. But this month, he touched on a topic that every lawyer can relate to and that goes directly to matters of trust: referrals. Enormous numbers of clients, having no other way to find a lawyer, request referrals from other lawyers. This is a tricky business, Scott writes, one that poses difficulties for the lawyer who receives the request:
When I refer someone to a lawyer, it’s a personal endorsement. I am saying to that person that I vouch for the competency and ethics of the person whose name I give them. It means something to me, and I feel responsible. Sure, I’m not my brother’s keeper and can’t do the other lawyer’s work myself. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes things just don’t work out well, or the fit isn’t there. But I cannot, and do not, send clients to just a name. Names are easy to come by. I can get you a name pretty much anywhere, but getting a name means nothing. … I would require far, far more to have the requisite faith to entrust them with a client.
Shifting gears slightly brings us to my former profession, journalism. Jeff Jarvis, crusader for new and better approaches to news coverage, focuses on the myths that struggling news media leaders tell themselves and others about how journalism “ought to” work. In a collaboration economy, Jeff says, traditional scarcity disappears and new relationships develop among crowd-sourced reporters and their readers. Not surprisingly, trust is at the heart of these relationships:
All those “extra” people add new value and efficiency – if you see the opportunity in it and enable them to. They’re us. That’s how Google sees us, capturing our links and clicks to discover the value of those million – no, trillion – flying pages. That’s how Wikipedia and Craigslist created their value, dealing in trust and membership as a new currency. That’s how I want next-generation news organizations to look at us, as the people who will create news while the news orgs add value to it: vetting, correcting, organizing, training, promoting, selling. The news orgs and their journalists then become so much more efficient because they work collaboratively with the public. That’s how they become sustainable and profitable again. But this happens only if you trust and value the others and understand the economics of collaboration.
Another topic I’ll never tire of discussing is innovation, something lawyers are still grappling with but that other professionals have long since recognized the value of and adopted. Put innovation together with collaboration and you have my full attention, as does this post by Ruth Ann Hattori, which draws the connections between trust and innovation. How would these questions be answered in your office?
The first step toward high collaboration is trust-building. … But what does that really look like in your workplace?
- Who can you trust and how do you know it?
- Will your colleagues “have your back,” no matter what (short of something criminal or unethical)?
- Does management give credit where due?
- Who can be relied on 100%?
- Do you keep/manage your promises?
- Are people really competent or faking it?
- Do your colleagues truly care if you are successful?
- Are you happy or jealous or envious for their success?
- Does everyone truly keep confidences… even when it doesn’t matter anymore?
- How open and honest is competition for promotion?
- Who is trying to gain favor of others?
- Do people admit what they don’t know?
- Do people ask for help without insecurity?
None of the articles I’ve highlighted so far, nor indeed any of the candidates for this Carnival, suggest that trust is a bad thing. Obviously, we proceed in any discussion of trust on the basis that it’s a virtuous and beneficial thing. But that’s not to say it’s easy. Trust, in fact, is hard, and that’s an important point that doesn’t get noted often enough. This post does us a service by reminding us of the risks of trust:
If you start from a position of trust, you are starting from a position of risk. There is no trust without risk. When you trust someone, you are putting your interests in their control. They have the ability to muck things up for you, and you are trusting them to take care of you (think about it: if they can’t really do anything that affects you negatively, then it’s not really trust). So it’s not just starting with the belief that your people want to do the right thing. That’s too easy. It’s easy to assume people have good intentions. Trust is about counting on them to behave in a way that is consistent with your interests, intention or not. There is, of course, a huge benefit to this kind of trust…. But it’s hard work for people in authority to give up that kind of control and accept that kind of risk.
The editor in me likes to start an article with a good anecdote, but in this case, I think I’ll use a good anecdote to finish this post. Jonathan Weber’s small-business blog makes the case for trust in business, and uses a small but powerful success story to make a very important point: trust works.
When we started NewWest, the domain name NewWest.com was owned by a furniture store in Wyoming, and the owner was not inclined to sell it. We worked out an informal arrangement where he would put a link to NewWest.Net on his site, and we would run advertising for his store. We checked in every now and again and had a few glitches with the link not appearing properly, but it was all friendly, and neither of us worried too much about the exact value of the trade. A few months ago, the owner of the store got in touch and said the domain name might be for sale, as he was closing the company. He said he’d sell it to us if I made a reasonable offer. I made an offer, he countered, we agreed on a price, and then his wife transferred the domain name to us, and we put a check in the mail. I hesitated briefly on this—should we have some kind of escrow arrangement?—but decided that, based on our previous dealings, I trusted these folks, and they felt the same. Frankly, I think if we had not had this kind of friendly, informal business relationship, we might not have been able to acquire the domain so readily.
So there you have it — ten excellent blog posts about trust from the last 30 days. But if those entries aren’t enough, here are ten more that will reward further reading:
- Build A Solo Practice @ SPU, “Social media platforms becoming the new content portal – lawyers included.”
- Cultivating Creativity, “Whole-hearted leadership.”
- Johngies.com, “How important is the spirit of the organization?”
- New York Law Blog, “Review of Chris Brogan’s Trust Summit: Be a priest and build a church.”
- Strategic Legal Technology, “Deconstructing O’Melveny chair’s remarks on BigLaw.”
- Seth’s Blog, “Notice me.”
-The Business Ethics Blog, “Should consumers trust Big Pharma?”
- The Small Business Blog, “Trust makes a comeback in business.”
My sincere thanks to Charles and to Ian Welsh for asking me to host this month’s Carnival and for all their assistance throughout. For more information about the Carnival of Trust, a list of past hosts and entries, and information about how you can host a future edition, visit the Trust Matters site.