Have you noticed over the last five or ten years how many leaders in industry, sports, politics, and more have been revealed as untrustworthy? Let’s name a few names. Bernie Madoff: trusted financial advisor. Lance Armstrong: trusted cancer-survivor-turned-multiple-Tours-de-France-winner. Politicians too numerous to count. Even entire organizations, like Countrywide Financial Corp.

Closer to home for lawyers, we have the lawyers whose billing practices are outlined in this unbelievable-but-true article. (Subscription required.) The article includes examples such as a a series of bills that showed one lawyer charging 42 hours in a single day and a lawyer who had rented a VIP box at the home stadium of the Indianapolis Colts and “tried to charge his client for the catered food and alcohol for the entire box by listing it on his bill as ‘dinner while attending deposition in Indianapolis.'” And then we have the leaders of Dewey & LeBoeuf now on trial and the handful of lawyers who give the rest of the profession a bad name. All aberrations, but their antics contribute to a niggling lack of confidence that some may feel about lawyers as a group.
Unfortunately, when attorneys hit the news as being untrustworthy (especially in the context of other people, professions), and industries are being unmasked as deceitful, it’s harder to gain trust. That impacts not just business development, but also (at least in some instances) client and other relationships.

How can you conduct yourself so you’re recognized as trustworthy? Here are a few foundational steps:

  1. Do what you say, when you say you’ll do it, the way you say you’ll do it. It’s a simple standard that isn’t necessarily easy to meet, but each time you do, you’re demonstrating that you’re reliable. This is especially important when you’re establishing a relationship with a potential client or referral source.
  2. Tell the truth. That’s a given, right? Perhaps not, at least not fully, in certain instances. There are plenty of opportunities to shade the truth about a likely outcome by suggesting the best-case scenario, possibly without even realizing that the suggestion is misleading. And it extends in other areas as well, to telling the truth about problems and mistakes, including being willing to confront difficult situations rather than sweep them under the rug. In such circumstances, telling the truth may be difficult, but it shows you to be credible.
  3. Put your clients’ interests first, and where appropriate, acknowledge that you’re doing so. Most clients have probably wondered at one time or another whether a lawyer could have performed some task more quickly or if there might have been a more expedient route to the final outcome. (That’s part of why we have alternative fee arrangements now.) When you demonstrate day in and day out that you put your clients’ interests first, your clients won’t have to wonder again, and they won’t feel the need to question anything you tell them. You will become the much-desired trusted advisor.
  4. Be predictable, in all the right ways. This is a corollary to points 1 and 2 above, but it’s worth stating separately. Be on time for meetings. Return calls within the time frame you promise, or let your client know (before that time frame expires) when you will be able to call. Small behaviors like these again demonstrate your credibility and build trust.
  5. Be sure everyone else who interacts with your clients and contacts uses the same approach. Behavior of your staff and colleagues reflects on you. Make sure that reflection reinforces your credibility.

It’s dramatic to identify a crisis of truth, but that crisis is very real. Consider how it may affect your professional relationships and your business development opportunities. For more food for thought, read this blog post.