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Why a ‘culture of trust’ is important for firms

This firm leader has found that being open and vulnerable with her staff has led to a better firm culture and more empathetic conversations — but said that the legal industry still has a way to go.

user iconLauren Croft 15 June 2023 SME Law
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Natasha Hannah is the director and principal of in house nous, a Melbourne-based law firm outsourcing in-house lawyers. Speaking recently on The Boutique Lawyer Show, she reflected on doing things a little differently, as well as being more empathetic and understanding when it comes to not only her staff but also with external stakeholders that boutique firm owners often have to deal with.

This came after Ms Hannah recently used a hashtag on LinkedIn: #lesslawyermorehuman, a mindset she got on board with after having children.

“The way that we came up with ‘less lawyer and more human’ was let’s just be ourselves, and the clients who like it will want to work with us. And that’s really very much how we operate,” she said.


“For example, my clients, I’ll tell them, I can’t do a meeting at that time because I’m doing daycare drop-off. The kids are sick today, so I might get back to you later tonight or tomorrow, whatever that looks like. And they are completely fine with it. And I think that us being authentic and genuine has attracted like-minded people within both the community, the legal community, but also clients as well.”

This plays into firms now needing to support both male and female staff as parental leave policies of upwards of 18 weeks become the norm — a trend that Ms Hannah said relates back to leaders being more human-centric.

“It’s again about the processes and soft skills that are part of that whole parental journey, from pregnancy through to being on parental leave and then transitioning back to work. So, I think that the whole cycle is really important. And there are those key skills, or leadership skills, that you should encourage your leaders and managers to develop. And by the way, leadership is a skill to be learned. You’re not born into it. Some are better than others, sure, but it’s something you need to practice,” she explained.

“So, it’s about building trust and building connection with those staff, and particularly with parents coming back from parental leave, as I like to say, focus on output. It’s not about when work’s being done, but having those discussions around; OK, you don’t work 09:00 to 05:00, but as long as our work is getting done to an optimal level, then we are good. And so that’s really important. And I think that clients more and more are liking dealing with service providers who are at the forefront of some of these trends and practices.”

In terms of best practice for boutiques when it comes to parental obligations, such as picking up a sick child from school, Ms Hannah recommended keeping decisions “black and white”.

“If they are genuinely sick or they need to take carers leave because they need to pick up their child or care for their child, then just keep it simple and make it a proper leave situation. If it’s somewhere in the middle, for example, the employee needs to go pick up the child but then can come back and work, then, I think, have a conversation and encourage that,” she added.

“Maybe it means that that employee can come back later and finish off some piece of work that needs to be done that day. Depending on the situation, if the employee is willing to continue to work, add value, feel like they’re contributing, you should really encourage that. And so, it’s really just having that really strong communication and being empathetic in how you deal with that situation with the employee.”

But despite transparency and authenticity being increasingly important post-pandemic, Ms Hannah said that the legal industry still has a long way to go.

“The legal industry, I think, is still far away from having psychologically safe workplaces, really. And before you can have that two-way communication and transparency, you need to have a culture of trust, and you need your staff to trust you. Without that, I think it’s really difficult to have those open conversations.

“But, having said that, I certainly encourage leaders to try as best they can to be vulnerable. If they’re parents themselves, be role models, set an example of the practices that you believe in and let your staff follow suit and just continue to be vulnerable, show transparency to build trust and then hopefully, over time, you can have those conversations where they’re really open around where the employees at, where you’re at, what the expectations are, what outputs are required, and then everyone’s happy,” she said.

“If you don’t have trust, you don’t have that ability to communicate; it’s going to lead to issues because the employee will withhold information. They may not let you know that they’re struggling. They really want to prove to you that they can meet targets, meet expectations, but for whatever reason that they’re not disclosing to you, they just can’t. You’re misaligned; you’re on different pages. And ultimately, we both know that that just then leads to performance issues. And sadly, the employee may end up resigning, or maybe performance managed out, which is not ideal for anyone.”

These are also lessons — and leadership qualities — Ms Hannah said she has a larger appreciation for since becoming a working parent.

“I would encourage other working parents to just share their journey with colleagues, particularly those who are just coming through in becoming a new parent. Because again, we know that building trust with others, whether it’s upwards or horizontally, is about connection and vulnerability. So, I really just would encourage people to be open and honest about what they’re going through,” she concluded.

“A value that we live by at in house nous is that we just be ourselves and we be authentic. And what I’ve really noticed is that since doing that, I am making really, really strong connections with people, and that’s not something I was able to do in my former life, working under someone else’s banner, if I’m honest. So since being able to do that under my own brand and having that agency within a boutique firm, it’s just been so powerful and honestly really rewarding.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Natasha Hannah, click below:

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