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Becoming a 'trusted advisor' key for future lawyers

Becoming a 'trusted advisor' key for future lawyers

Lawyers must act like trusted advisors if they are to remain relevant in the future, according to Charles H. Green. He speaks to Lawyers Weekly. Trust is at the heart of every good relationship.…

Lawyers must act like trusted advisors if they are to remain relevant in the future, according to Charles H. Green. He speaks to Lawyers Weekly.

Trust is at the heart of every good relationship. For a lawyer, it is the central ingredient that ties them to their clients and proves they provide advice worthy of payment.

But as law firms continue to merge and grow into national, regional and global-sized businesses with hundreds - if not thousands - of lawyers, it seems the traditional role of the lawyer asa trusted advisor has been eroded.

Today, however, law departments in organisations appear keen to rekindle the notion of talking to trusted advisors. And, with the advent of technology, the proliferation of legal outsource providers and cheaper alternatives to traditional legal service offerings emerging, the move to becoming a trusted advisor is more important than ever for private practice lawyers.

"We're all subject to being replaced by a database if all there is is content," says president of Trusted Advisor Associates and author Charles Green. "But you cannot outsource relationships and we're infinitely a long way away from replacing the nuances that come from a good relationship."

For lawyers, that begs the question: just how does one become a trusted advisor?

Crafting trust

Green is a former consultant and executive education lecturer who, in 2005, co-authored The Trusted Advisor with David H. Maister and Robert M. Galford. Five years later, the book is still a popular advisory text for numerous organisations across a variety of industries. It has also been translated into an accredited training series, the first of which have recently started in Australia via accredited trainer Hazel Thompson.

According to Green, becoming a trusted advisor starts with understanding that a professional's place in the world can not be guaranteed via their expertise alone.

"We operate from fear, and the mistaken belief that the scarce resource is expertise. It's really not," says Green. "The scarce resource is the relationship and the expertise is best thought of as a necessary, but not a sufficient condition." The development of such relationships must rest on the notion of trustworthiness, according to Green. He cites a specific equation for measuring and/or achieving trustworthiness (see side box), with the equation's most fundamental principle sitting with the "S" which stands for self-orientation and the notion that the more focused on yourself you are, the less trustworthy you're going to be.

"Don't talk about yourself, talk about the client and let the client talk about themselves," says Green. "Demonstrate your expertise in the process of solving the client's issues. It's what other industries would call sample selling - instead of saying how the ice-cream tastes, you give them a taste." The next step is empathy. "We usually think of empathy as something that rhymes with lovingly or gently," says Green. "Empathy just means talking to people in a language that's familiar to them." That may also mean simply listening.

"The way you establish credibility is not by telling your credentials, you do it by sitting down with people and working out their issues in real time until they get comfortable with you and you can start billing them," says Green.

But learning to communicate with empathy will not be an easy feat for some lawyers who are well acquainted with operating their own way. Green believes that through practice - role-playing, sharing stories etc - lawyers can change, and make the rational assessment that their own success stories have usually occurred where they have demonstrated trust.

"The common themes I hear from their success stories is that they never convince clients they are the greatest through an onslaught of powerpoint slides and resumes, it's always that they came across a guy in a snowstorm in a ski resort and ended up drinking wine till 2am in the morning and eventually got hired."

Green adds that lawyers should only start billing once the relationship has been built. "That is the way to keep from being commoditised and outsourced," says Green.

Still, there is a risk involved in developing trust that may turn many lawyers and law firms off the idea. The risk may be wasted time and effort, the possible loss of billable hours, and/or in the concern that investing in a relationship may not ever translate into dollars and cents.

But in the long run, for those that truly commit to understanding trust, such flirtations with risk may pay some significant dividends.

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