- This article is part one of a three-part series on how lawyers can build relationships of trust with clients and colleagues when working in an online or hybrid arrangement.
- Good, trusting relationships between lawyers and their clients are essential. However, as legal services move online, there are challenges in how lawyers can create and maintain trust.
- This article provides ideas and strategies to address these issues.
Trust is essential — for our economy and society. When there is a high level of trust, processes, procedures and transactions are quicker, smoother and less costly. The Harvard Business Review paper, ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’, found that professional environments which foster secure connections where people feel like real contributors, has a direct correlation with higher productivity, better-quality products and increased profitability.
Trust is professional — Trust has a special place for lawyers as the archetypal ‘trusted advisor’. It is fundamental to professional work, premised on the specialised knowledge of the professional and involving substantial legal, fiduciary, and professional ethics obligations – all designed to support trust. Clients typically go to lawyers when they are at their most vulnerable and must be able to rely on their lawyers’ trustworthiness.
Trust is fragile — Trust is hard to control, easily demolished and difficult to repair. Society is said to be suffering from a trust crisis. Trust in business, government and institutions are at historic lows. Edelman’s recent (2022) study of NSW Residents’ Beliefs about Lawyers found that lawyers are typically perceived as elitist and poor communicators. To earn trust, lawyers must meet their professional ethics obligations, display integrity and good judgment, and cultivate positive (inclusive, empathetic and productive) relationships. Further, they must do so in the face of extreme pressures and new disruptions. From the development of innovative technologies, the demands from clients of ‘more for less’, to the global shift to hybrid workplaces – lawyers are operating in vastly different business environments compared to a few years ago.
In part one of this series, we consider the client relationship in its new online medium. How can lawyers develop trusting relationships with their clients online, from the client’s initial point of contact to the conclusion of the matter? And how can lawyers ensure that clients become repeat clients and recommend them to others?
But first—what is trust?
While definitions of trust vary, a useful definition comes from organisational management scholars, Mayer, Davis and Schoorman:
‘Trust is the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that party.’
These ideas reflect the fiduciary relationship between the lawyer and client. The client must rely on the professional to promote their best interests without themselves having the expertise or oversight to fully assess whether this is taking place. Trust is supported or enforced through the law, which takes a strict view of the fiduciary obligations and provides a range of remedies. From the client’s (the trustor) perspective, there are two main drivers of trust:
- positive expectations (i.e. cognitive driven) – where the client assesses the lawyer’s competence, reliability and integrity; and
- willingness to be vulnerable (i.e. affective/attitude driven) – where the client senses the warmth, respect and genuine concern from the lawyer (the trustee). Clients are most satisfied when they sense there is ‘rapport’ or ‘a relationship of understanding, empathy and trust.’
Lawyers usually receive minimal formal training in the relational skills necessary to manage the client relationship, even before the difficulties of the online or hybrid environment are introduced. These dynamics of trust morph in an online medium, where there is typically a lack of or fewer non-verbal cues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, hand features and speech patterns — all the things that help form and give impressions, improve comprehension and are used to assess the truthfulness of communication. With reduced social or emotional information, and a slower rate of information transmission, it becomes a challenge to establish rapport and trust.