Trusted Advisor Lawyers

In Gallup’s annual poll of Most Trusted Professions, lawyers rank 11th out of 15. In our work with clients, we often ask for unprompted answers to “which professions are least trusted?” The results reliably list car salesmen, lawyers and politicians as top choices for the bottom three. It’s also true that in our practice, lawyers generally rank low on the Trust Quotient self-assessment tool.

Given those daunting results, can lawyers legitimately aspire to being trusted advisors?

It’s a fair question, but our answer is unambiguously ‘yes.’ Not only that, but lawyers who do figure out the answer have a great competitive advantage, given the generally low bar set by their compatriots.

Structural Barriers to Trust

It’s worth noting that lawyers (and politicians) face some structural barriers to being perceived as trustworthy. In the US, the legal system by design is an adversarial system, and the first-listed ethical obligation is to advocate for one’s client (in the UK, service to the justice system gets top mention). As a lawyer friend of mine puts it, “in the law there is no truth – there is only evidence.” This is a feature, not a bug – the US system is designed to trust the system, not the lawyer. But it does mean that simple concepts like truth-telling don’t capture the whole essence of trust for lawyers.

Note: A similar structural feature applies to politicians – it is the work of politicians (at least, until recently) to seek compromise in order to further a common good. Again, simple definitions like “truth and honesty” aren’t sufficient to capture the whole story of trust.

I can’t think of a similar structural ‘excuse’ for the low trust ratings of car salesmen – they have to own their dismal ratings.

Lawyers and the Trust Equation

Notwithstanding the above, there is no reason lawyers can’t perform well on all dimensions of the Trust Equation. In my experience, all professional services suffer, more or less, from over-emphasis on the two ‘rational’ components of trustworthiness, Credibility and Reliability. But lawyers are at the extreme end of the professions in their tendency to equate trust with competence, credentials and rationality.

Again, this is not surprising; apart from physicians, lawyers must undergo far more rigorous substantive training and certification than, say, people in executive search or management consulting. Such fields attract people who are good at mastering complex material. On top of that, lawyers must be good at logical argumentation.

When a field puts inordinate emphasis on one aspect of trustworthiness, it is natural to expect people to assume that such emphasis is the key to being trusted.

Except, it isn’t.

Lessons of the Trust Quotient

The TQ (Trust Quotient), itself based on the Trust Equation, offers a quantitative indicator of trustworthiness. Our analysis of TQ data found that the “soft” skills of Intimacy and low Self-Orientation are slightly more powerful determinants of trustworthiness than are the “hard” components of Credibility and Reliability (based on a regression analysis of over 70,000 responses). But don’t take our word for it; note that the previously-mentioned Gallup poll shows nursing as the most trusted profession – for 19 years in a row. Not doctors, but nurses – a profession whose very job most foundationally rests on great skills of Intimacy and low Self-Orientation. Or, consider a classic Harvard Business Review article, Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks.

To put it delicately, few lawyers believe in their heart of hearts that soft skills are as important as hard skills. Yet legal clients are the same people who are hospital patients, and the same people who hire accountants or financial planners. The clients are all human beings, who share human traits, including a tendency to weight heavily the soft skills when it comes to choosing who to trust.

So What’s a Poor Lawyer To Do?

There are many aspects of being a trusted advisor, so it is misleading to focus on one. Nonetheless, let me take that leap, if only because this is a short blogpost.

Arguably top of the list is to be an excellent listener. Before you roll your eyes and move on, I’m talking about a particular kind of listening. It’s not about listening for data, or to prove a hypothesis or a case. Instead, it’s about listening as a form of respect. Respect, when given, produces respect in reciprocation. If I first listen to you, you are more inclined to listen to me.

Yes, clients seek us out largely for our reputation for expertise. But we all – and lawyers especially – draw the wrong conclusion from that. Once they’re found you, clients aren’t interested in you proving how smart you are, or how fast you can cut to the chase of the case at hand – that’s why they came to you in the first place.

But they won’t fully trust your advice on that basis. That trust comes from you first proving that you understand their unique story. If they believe you understand who they are and what their situation is, they then become willing to hear your advice – even if it was the same advice you expected to give them before they walked through the door, or that you routinely give to others in similar situations. They want your expertise, yes; but not until they sense that you have grasped their unique essence and circumstances.

They don’t teach this in law school. (Nor in business school, or architecture school, etc., for that matter). Yet it’s true. The key to being a trusted advisor is to earn the right to offer your expertise – a right we earn by paying attention to the individual humanity of each client, one at a time. Yes, competence and expertise matter, but not to the exclusion of the softer skills.

The good news is, it’s a lot easier to “learn” those skills; really, to recover them, because they are skills we learned in kindergarten, and have simply been mis-educated to unlearn them.

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