Restoring the culture of trust

Seth Godin served one up on the legal profession last week, and he wasn’t even trying. He was writing about marketers and their responsibility to serve a greater interest than the narrow, short-term goal of increasing a client’s sales. He identified two points at opposite ends of an aspirational spectrum — statesmen and lawyers — and told marketers to choose between them. His critiques of lawyers are devastating for their matter-of-factness:

Lawyers are sworn to be advocates. It’s their duty. They take a side and they argue it. They’re not supposed to tell the truth, they’re supposed to argue a point of view. … Marketing culture has become a culture of lawyers. Apparently, marketers are now advocates sworn to argue on behalf of a client. ….

The lawyer works with constituents who fully expect him to be an advocate. The judge, the clients and the jury (hopefully) understand that he is making a case, not telling the truth. Marketers work in a different world. As marketing has transformed from a specialized subset of business to a ubiquitous element of society, marketers still have the chance to be believed. But trust belongs to statesmen, not lawyers. People don’t say, “I trust her, she’s the lawyer for the other side.”

Lawyers have a choice to make, too. We can reinforce this reputation as skilled and dangerous weapons to be deployed and applied as needed, at a time when trust is becoming intrinsically important to business and consumer relationships; or we can make a real effort to reinvigorate the role of trust in our professional culture, giving it to and expecting it from each other and our clients.

What’s most disheartening about our poor reputation for trust is that lawyers are amazingly trustworthy as individuals, possessing (in my perhaps biased view) more courage and moral fiber than can be found in many other walks of life. And this doesn’t evaporate upon human contact: many lawyers have thriving direct relationships of trust with both colleagues and clients.

The problem is that our professional culture has come to view trust as just too risky — the fear of exploitation and disappointment has had a disproportionate impact on our willingness to trust, and that has damaged the standards to which we hold ourselves and each other. Every lawyer thinks he or she is trustworthy, but for some reason is reluctant to extend that belief to others.

So we don’t trust our colleagues to live up to their partnership commitments or act in the firm’s best interests; we don’t trust our juniors with important cases or meaningful client contact; we don’t trust opposing counsel to act in good faith; we don’t trust clients to behave reasonably or honourably when reviewing our work or our fees. Day by day, trust plays a less and less important part in our views and decisions; we come to expect, perhaps based on a few direct or anecdotal examples, that everyone else out there is playing the system, and we come to believe that trust is naive.

But lawyers can’t do without trust; it’s oxygen to us. If we don’t subscribe to the importance of truth and faithfulness in our relationships (and note that “trust” and “truth” share a common Old English ancestor, trēowe or “fidelity”), we’re just not ourselves. Two people who understand better than most this central role of trust in the lawyer’s life are David Maister and Charles Green. A decade ago, David wrote an article called A Matter of Trust, which identified the essential role of trust in professional relationships:

I will trust you if I believe that you’re in this for the long haul, that you’re not just trying to maximize your own short-term benefits of our interactions. Trust is about reciprocity: You help me and I’ll help you. But I need to know that I can rely on you to do your part and that our relationship is built on shared values and principles. … [T]he more you are trusted by your clients, colleagues and subordinates, the more you will get from them and the more you will thrive professionally and personally.

And just today, Charles made a blog post about the significant role that trust plays in improving the overall state of a profession:

Most service providers over-rate credentials and a track record, and underrate the power of telling the truth—all of it. Honesty, transparency, truth-telling, full disclosure—these are the things that lay bare motives, and convince others that nothing is being hidden.

[I]n almost any population (all right, so maybe Wall Street might be an exception), the willingness to behave at a level of trustworthiness beyond the norm for that population will itself tend to raise the level of trusting as a response. Simply put, people respond to trustworthiness in a reciprocal manner.

It’s easy to assume the worst about others, to let our actions be guided by the fear of exploitation — it absolves us of the need to take the risks of believing. But you know, nobody ever said law was easy, and trusting others can be one of the hardest parts. It’s time we engaged this challenge.

So we need to make trust fashionable again. We need to again make trust — the courage to give it and the honour of receiving it — the highest goal and the best accolade for lawyers, so that those unwilling to (or unworthy of) trust are seen as the exceptions, not the rule. We need to demonstrate that trust is better, more rewarding and more appealing than all the fears and negativities that are infecting our professional culture. We need to make sure lawyers are never presented as the opposite of statesmen again.

Take a deep breath. Make the effort. Be a lawyer worthy of trust — and start treating your colleagues and competitors as if they’ve made the same choice.


  1. Charles H. Green


    What a great post, and very well said. I think lawyers could benefit greatly from your point of view.

    While Seth Godin’s view is understandable, and not wrong, I have nonetheless found that the best lawyers do not fully buy it:

    -The best divorce lawyers are those who counsel couples to make their last time together worthy of the good times, rather than pouring gasoline on the enraged fires of pained people operating from temporarily deranged motives like revenge;

    -The best litigators are those who heed the advice of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, to the effect that the best victories come from wars that are never fought;

    -The best corporate lawyers are those who help advance the brand, image, reputation, customer focus and organizational health of their employers, rather than channeling Cassandra or viewing themselves as self-appointed Chief Risk Mitigation Officers;

    I also have found a great many lawyers who are principled, and are intrinsically inclined to the concept of service or other-orientation. They feel pained at the notion that their better instincts must be subordinated to the notion of gun-for-hire. Voices like yours give them warranted hope; please keep it tup.

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