A lack of trust in lawyers is a golden opportunity in 2021, writes Sue Parker.
It’s a great irony that the legal profession with its noble endeavour, high barrier of entry and incumbent lifelong commitment to the craft is viewed with much public and commercial reproach.
Trust in lawyers has declined over the last six years. I would guesstimate that media scrutiny of issues, overseas competition and market nuances from COVID-19 have had an impact.
Roy Morgan’s Image of Professions Survey 2021 found only 26 per cent of Australians rated lawyers as “high to very high” for ethics and honesty. Yet the Governance Institute Ethics Index 2020 reported 45 per cent of Australians rated lawyers as “somewhat to very ethical”.
The Governance Institute surveyed ethics across professional member associations. The Law Society came in with a 61 per cent ranking of “somewhat to highly ethical” in behaviour. It appears that associations across most professions rated higher than the practitioners themselves. This indicates an interesting trust disconnect.
And internationally, the Ipsos Global Trust in Professions Index 2019 ranked Australian lawyers at 22 per cent as “trusted to very trusted”; Great Britain at 26 per cent, Canada at 20 per cent and US at a mere 15 per cent.
Not rosy data, but insights that can be inverted into golden marketing opportunities.
How opinions are formed
It’s prudent to review how opinions and preconceptions of any profession are formed. Positive or negative beliefs derive from direct experiences, relayed second-hand incidents, populist hearsay, political and media narratives. And often it’s a hotchpotch trussed by conscious and/or unconscious biases.
Lawyers are by no means the only sector with a negative image problem. It’s fair to say that most readers here will have cast aspersions on other sectors at some point for a myriad of reasons.
But is it all true? Suppositions and biases must be challenged.
Challenging the illogical
It’s fanciful to assume that any sector is untainted and devoid of poor conduct. Every profession has a mix of good, bad, ugly, charlatans, bullies, honest and outstanding practitioners.
Lawyers and firms do have a few specific issues and regulations, but mostly the accusations demoting trust and ethics are similar to all (including service value, cost, and behaviours).
Critical thinking and logic are generally missing in stereotypes and touted opinions. Is it logical that an entire profession can be tarred with the same brush? Is it logical that every lawyer has a similar personality and attitude? Do one or two negative experiences justify exile?
It’s just illogical to cast a net of opprobrium over an entire profession. But that is not to say the legal sector is not able to significantly improve and lift their game in many areas. Reflection and change are essential in all professions as is the cognition that attracting and retaining clients holds equal weight in the trust and ethics pot.
Perceptions are reality until disproved
Humans don’t like to feel shame and seek to save face when perceptions are disproved based on new evidence or fresh perspectives.
And whilst individual lawyers, or firms cannot change the entire sector’s image, you can do your bit to chip away via every interaction, online footprint, skills and communication message that are delivered.
Further, it’s an optimal time to address trust issues with the current media spotlight on bullying, ageism, sexism and harassment. But don’t try to feign care or genuineness as rhetoric must meet reality. You cannot fake moral fortitude or ethics.
Elements of ethical conduct
The Governance Institute Ethics Index 2020 also surveyed ethical conduct in society and the top elements that ensure ethical conduct. The top results were accountability, transparency and highly ethical leaders.
Whilst not industry-specific, the results speak strongly to the legal profession and need to be addressed in brand communications.
Control your brand narrative
Every lawyer, partner or solo practitioner needs to drive and control their brand narrative. You need to stand out among the pack, demonstrate your differences, values and raison d'etre in congruence with your personality and style.
The avenues to communicate your brand narrative include LinkedIn, websites, blogs, media interviews, industry publications, events and social channels that target your ideal client.
A few tips:
- Address the elephant in the room and talk to the negative perceptions. Acknowledge the accusations your field regularly faces and why and how you conduct law differently.
- Communicate your values and what is meaningful to you and your field. Share stories and show rather than state or tell.
- Your vibe will attract your client tribe. Be brave and consistent in sharing who you are and what matters in the right channels.
- Build up content, media and PR activities to target your ideal markets. Share industry insights and give value.
- Be transparent in sharing your best practices, processes and methods. By virtue, this will show your differences encouraging clients to self-select.
The hero value
Negative perceptions galvanise action, drive change and a fresh marketing lens that may have otherwise been ignored.
If the entire profession is perceived as highly trusted, how would anyone stand out? How would lawyers impact meaningfully in a sea of sameness? Without the nuances and shades of good and bad it could all blend into the Stepford Wives.
A lack of trust in lawyers is a golden opportunity in 2021. And whilst the market won’t readily admit it, I think there is an eagerness for brilliant ethical lawyers to stand and identify their hero value.
Sue Parker is the owner of DARE Group Australia.