11/27/12

Where’s the Trust?

Image [cc] genvessel
The recent dialog about Procurement’s role in the purchasing of legal services has been nagging at my brain. I wrote a piece for a book on the subject and basically suggested in-house lawyers beat Procurement to the punch. The fallout of that effort was my series on the subject.

But the nagging continued. Over the long weekend the incessant nagging finally triggered a repressed memory. Back in the day when I worked for the Utah State Bar, I would regularly receive calls from friends looking for lawyers. They called me instead of lawyer referral because they wanted a lawyer that came with a personal recommendation. Of course, since most of these were personal and not business related, most of these were for divorces.

I would usually give my friends two or three names, along with my thoughts on why they might chose one lawyer over another. That advice was typically tied to strategy. Did they want a quick and less contentious divorce? Or did they want a pound of flesh from the Ex (a very expensive option)?

The referrals I gave each friend were tied to their situation, but I always ended these conversations with the same advice: “It’s all about Trust.” I suggested they talk with each lawyer and decide how they felt about that person. Of course I was giving them names of people I trusted, but my advice centered on the issue of their trust with a lawyer. Ending a marriage is a very important decision. So each person needs to chose a lawyer they can trust to represent them in this effort. I would repeat my advice, “It’s all about Trust” when ending the call.

So … where is the trust in today’s legal market?

It’s my sense that clients feel the trust was broken. Right or wrong, they feel law firms took advantage of them by raising rates and paying first year associates so much. Since these are two of the primary financial stats they see in the market, they have become a central target of their feelings. One might argue that clients were part of the team that built the escalating rate system. But regardless if that is true, they now harbor feelings of broken trust. So now we see RFPs as a manifestation of those feelings. Rather than directly resolving trust issues, many clients are allowing Procurement to stand-in for them and either drive or significantly influence how legal services are purchased.

Of course it is not fair to focus exclusively on the client-side of the trust equation. Law firms have not only played a primary role, but benefited greatly from the rate escalation world.

Going back to my Utah Bar analogy, the real problem facing the profession is trust. When a client hires a lawyer or firm to represent them, in the great majority of situations, they are placing a significant trust in the lawyers involved to resolve or handle their legal matter.

My point: Procurement is not the best way to address the lack-of-trust issue. Having a third party with its own agenda interrupt the relationship between client and lawyer will only lead to more distrust.

Which brings us back to one of my perennial themes: The Conversation. Trust will be rebuilt when client and lawyer sit down and talk. In those situations trust is almost a by-product. When people meet and share what is really important to them. Each side becomes vested in the other’s success.

So clients – I share with you the advice I gave all of my divorcing friends: It’s all about Trust. If you want good results, including the result of cost savings, you need to make sure you have relationships of trust with your lawyers. Otherwise, you are entrusting ‘just another vendor’ with some of the most important decisions you make for your company.

Go ahead – sit down and talk.

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