A Certain Level of Trust
By Charles Gillis
In the predictable whirlwind of speculation that follows after a major international law firm implodes many people register their opinions on what went wrong. It’s interesting for some us to read the post mortem reviews where experts postulate on the poor decisions and missteps that led a troubled firm down the path to their ultimate ruination. As the latest big firm poured out assets like a well hit piñata I too speculated on the root causes of their distress. While I cannot give fresh insight into the mistakes that most certainly happened in the latest spectacle, I can comment on a common problem that plagues law firms. Although it sounds simplistic and naïve, there was a single moment when a firm like Dewey could have been saved. All failed businesses rest for a moment on a tipping point, teetering on the abyss and at that point decisions are made that will seal their fate. These decisions are based on a critical trust of all the surrounding elements and that’s the problem. Trust is a resource that is often in short supply in the legal industry.
Certainly there are numerous factors to consider as we examine the wreckage of a failed firm, but hindsight does wonderful things to our sense of surety. Like any other business, law firms make mistakes. It’s why they all carry professional liability insurance. Despite what comedians might say, lawyers are in fact human, and humans are indeed fallible. We can still trust people who make an honest misstep. However, it’s not necessarily the mistake itself that will steer a firm off the cliff; it’s the manner in which the firm reacts to the mistake. The weight of a bad decision is compounded by late reactions, overcorrection and the unclear edicts from the leadership. Of course outright lies are like salt on the field – they kill current growth and make it hard to cultivate much in the future. Before you can fix anything you have to trust your surroundings and your colleagues.
The benefit of the doubt is not freely granted in our profession. It must be cultivated, even amongst colleagues. It is no great surprise that firms who engender trust amongst their teams create a more efficient, productive and ultimately more profitable work environment. Understanding that people need to be able to trust one another is the easy part of the equation. Actually getting to them to trust one another is entirely different. A culture of trust is the result of ongoing shared experiences and a constant reinforcement of values. You cannot issue a proclamation to build trust. You cannot buy it. The inability to purchase trust confounds some firms. Firms who believed they were securing loyalty and commitment through lavish compensation, benefits and perks soon realized the shallowness of their connection once the economy caused the benefit pool to dry up.
Often the qualities that people value most are the non-financial benefits of their work environment. Satisfied employees feel a connection to something bigger especially if they have an opportunity to contribute to its success. People who have faith in their employer help build traditions and memories. Engaged employees are not merely advocates for firm culture, they help create the firm culture. It is precisely this level of commitment that drives long-term trust and success in an organization.
So how do you earn trust? Clearly we must honor our commitments and be candid and truthful. This may not be enough. The desire for a trusting environment is not enough, you must pursue it. Sometimes we can make a connection with our colleagues through very simple means. Recently at my firm we strengthened our connection with our people and all that was required was a lunch, an hour of time and three bar stools. At our recent “Founder’s Lunch” three of the original named partners of the firm sat casually before a packed room and recounted the story of the Firm’s creation. Without a script or teleprompters, they spoke of the early salad days of the firm, back when they had little but their wits. They spoke of the steep learning curve and the lessons learned early on. The war stories were humble and at times charmingly self-deprecating.
The investment of an hour of time brought people together in a shared experience. They were joined in the moment, but the stories made them feel as if they knew what it was like to be together 27 years ago when the firm was new and the future was uncharted. This outreach made everyone realize that they were part of the history. The decisions of the Founders helped create the present environment. It gave people faith in a shared destiny. Having faith in the past made trusting the future a lot easier. As I recall the litany of failed firms, I can’t help but think how a simple event of this nature might have helped these other firms. When times get tough, trust may be the only thing left. I’m quite certain that makes all the difference.
Charles Gillis is the Executive Director at Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, P.C. in Dallas. He has more than 15 years experience a Texas based law firm with more than 110 attorneys in Austin, Dallas and Houston. He is charged with managing daily operations and long term strategic initiatives of the Firm, overseeing operations in Accounting, Facilities, Information Technology, Personnel and Marketing.