Becoming a Trusted Advisor

The best part of writing this blog has been the amazing people I’ve gotten to meet along the way.  Two of those amazing people are Charles Green (Blog/Twitter) and Andrea Howe (Blog/Twitter), who’ve just co-authored the sequel to one of the best books for professional service providers of all times, The Trusted Advisor.

In their new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust, they provide actionable tools, exercises and resources that will teach lawyers to consistently earn trust from their clients.  I highly recommend it.

When Andrea asked if I’d be interested in doing a Q &A with her and Charlie on Trust, I jumped at the chance.  Here it is:

Q:  You’ve both written and spoken about Trust for years.  In this down economy, where clients seem more focused on price, does Trust matter more or less than before?

This is a great question, Matt, and there is a clear answer: trust matters more in down times. It’s in bad times that more people are tempted to behave in untrustworthy ways—to cut corners, to cut price, to over-promise, to jump for the bird in the hand rather than wait for the delayed gratification of long-term relationships.

In down times, people are tempted to react more from fear.  That means short-termism, zero-sum game behavior, and a tendency to isolate rather than collaborate. 

In such times, the people who stay with the high road are even more distinguished by comparison.  Someone who plays for the long run, who stays focused on client needs, and who sticks to relationships and to principles, really stands out. 

Another way to put that is: the times when it’s hardest to stay trustworthy are the times when you can gain the biggest competitive advantage from being trustworthy. 

Q:  Speaking of price, you both know that I’m not a fan of the billable hour, which often pits the clients best interests against their lawyers’.  Can you discuss ways lawyers can leverage Trust to embrace more collaborative pricing models, where risks and rewards are shared between client and lawyer?

Absolutely. We’re firm believers in leading from the four trust principles: transparency, collaboration, long-term focus, and other-orientation—all of which, when practiced, serve both parties’ best interests.  Of those principles, one of the most important when it comes to pricing and fees is transparency.

Consider an alternative to what are often veiled or vague (and usually postponed) conversations about pricing: a frank, honest, sincere discussion that emphasizes candor. The lawyer in the scenario could say words to the effect of, “Let’s see if we can both agree on some basic principles when it comes to our working relationship.  We’ll both be more successful if we agree to be in this together, for the long haul, with pretty much no secrets between us. That includes being jointly committed to a billing approach that maximizes the benefit to both of us. I am not interested in making a nickel if it comes solely at your expense and I hope you’d be equally disinterested in saving a nickel at my expense. Let’s work together to define fee levels and practices that are utterly fair to both of us and help our respective financial health over the long term.” 

A conversation like that not only sets the stage for trust, but for the kind of collaboration and creativity that makes room for lots of pricing alternatives beyond the traditional billable hour.

Q:  In the book, you suggest several ways professionals can handle their difficult clients (I believe you call them “jerks” in the book).  If I’m a lawyer with a difficult client, what should I do?  Isn’t it just easier to fire them?

Ha ha, well that’s certainly the temptation!  The thing about our clients who are “jerks” is, it seems to be catching.  Notice you’ve got one jerk for a client, and pretty soon others start popping up. Next thing you know you’re firing half your clients!

One thing we point out is that the “jerk” of a client probably has a spouse, a child, a dog, a friend—at least someone in her life— who thinks she’s pretty great. The problem statement, “My client is a jerk,” is problematic in-and-of-itself: it’s highly subjective, it’s unverifiable, and the object of the statements—your client—is not likely to agree.

What we see as bad behavior usually (usually) comes from decent people who are stressed out, anxious, or fearful. (Which is why we put the word “jerk” in quotations in the book.)

If your client behaves in ways that seem unproductive, ineffective, uncooperative, or untrustworthy, it is easy to dismiss her as a “jerk.” Freedom from difficult clients lies in taking responsibility for fixing the relationship. Lead with curiosity instead to look at what may be behind the behavioral issue—for her and for you. Have a conversation. Find out what’s going on. Name it and claim it.

And what about the real, true evil clients? Yes, there are a few.  Those are the ones you refer to your competitors.

Q:  When should law firms start teaching Trust?  Is this new associate 101 stuff, or only relevant once lawyers begin to build significant relationships with clients?  Or is this something that should be covered in law schools — once schools start embracing practical skills education?

It’s never too early to start—trust is a life skill, after all. And like a martial art, it takes a lifetime to practice. There is nothing about being trustworthy or working effective relationships that is or should be restricted to higher levels in a firm.  Everyone has chances to operate from the basic principles, and to demonstrate the virtues of trustworthiness: telling the truth, behaving dependably, keeping confidences, and being mindful of the needs of others. And even though what it takes to be trustworthy is actually remarkably simple, it often isn’t easy—for anyone.

That said, it’s the senior partners in the firm who are the most effective teachers, for good or ill. Whatever they do is what junior people will mirror. We’d suggest a firm should be wary of teaching Trust 101 to the junior folks when the senior people aren’t willing to walk the talk.

Q:  A lot of readers of this blog are solo and small firm practitioners to whom the economy has not been kind.  What specific advice do you have for someone with a general practice who feels compelled to take nearly every client who walks in the door?

First, stop hoping your revenues will recover, and firmly address your practice areas, pricing, and means of finding clients. This recession is not going away anytime soon, and there are secular problems in the supply of lawyers on top of it.

Once you’ve done that, take the clients you know you can do good work for and help the others find another lawyer. For the ones you keep, do really good work. Resist the temptation to resent them, or to treat them as a short-term means to an end. Give them your best. Going back to your first question, it’s in times like these that people’s true character is revealed. Every downturn has an upturn, and those who do right by others will be remembered for who they are in the upturn.  

Q:  You both have been making the rounds promoting this book.  What questions were you expecting and haven’t yet been asked?  How would you answer them?

Charlie Green:  Here’s a question we haven’t yet been asked: Why don’t people trust lawyers?  And is it a bum rap? My answer is no, unfortunately, it’s not a bum rap; people distrust lawyers more than most other professions. There are many reasons for this, including:  

  • In most professions, there is a such thing as “the truth,” whereas in law, there is only evidence.  
  • The nature of the law, at least in the US, is adversarial—it’s all about winning, and the other side losing.  Not a great attitude to take into divorce, contract disputes, or agreements drafting. 
  • The law is taught relentlessly as meritocratic—he who knows the most first wins.  Unfortunately, in life, that attitude pegs you as a know-it-all wiseass. 

The good news is, it is possible—very possible—for lawyers to treat their clients as true partners. And when they do, they stand clearly apart from the pack.

Andrea Howe:  We haven’t been asked what one chapter would we advise people to read, if they could only read one chapter—which is a tough question because the book strives to provide a wealth of practical guidance for a whole slew of situations. But if I had to zero in on just one chapter, my pick would be Chapter 2: Fundamental Attitudes. It’s a short one—only six pages—and yet it’s pivotal because being trustworthy means getting right the underlying attitudes, mindsets, outlooks, and ways of thinking. To jump ahead to skills, tips, and tricks, is to work the hard way. Get the attitudes right, and the rest will naturally follow.

Thanks to Andrea and Charlie for taking some time to answer my questions.  If you’d like to pick up the book, it is available here.

One Response to Becoming a Trusted Advisor
  1. Craig Martin
    December 1, 2011 | 6:43 pm

    Nice interview Matt. I’ve been reading Mr. Green’s blog for some time and his points are spot on. And, it was nice to see his ideas applied to attorneys. Some good food for thought.

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