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The Role of Trustworthiness in Client and Business Development

02.05.20 | Susan Duncan

Strong relationships are built on a foundation of trust. It doesn’t matter in what context your relationships exist – personal, social, professional or civic, you will not build successful, mutually meaningful and beneficial relationships without being authentic and trustworthy.

In the context of business development and client relationships, trustworthiness is essential to earning the right to represent clients, including expanding your services to them when it becomes clear they need them. Lawyers traditionally have been relatively skilled at a couple of components of trustworthiness and not as strong in other areas. Over many years of coaching and consulting, I have conducted an exercise I designed with scores of partners across dozens of firms based on the Trust Equation section of The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford. Below is a summary of the best practices used by many successful and aspiring rainmakers to strengthen their trustworthiness with clients.

The Trust Equation

The Trusted Advisor offers a formula for trustworthiness: the factors involved and how they interrelate. The essence of the formula is that those with the greatest trustworthiness display great strength in each/all of the top three numerators and should score low on the denominator. The formula is as follows:

As we review the four components of the trust equation, remember that in most law firms, the best service to clients and opportunities for growth often occur between and among the lawyers in the firm. When we provide the examples we do below, consider whether you or your colleagues are building genuine, trust-worthy relationships with each other. There are many lawyers who only focus on trust-building with their external clients and not with their internal colleagues.


Credibility usually is about words, content and expertise. This is an area in which lawyers often feel they excel, however, they frequently fall short in some of the ways in which credibility is expressed and developed. As described by authors Maister, Green and Galfert, credibility includes “content expertise plus presence – how we look, act, react and talk about our content” or knowledge/expertise. When working with lawyers on consultative selling, this is akin to “show, don’t tell,” where you ask questions and engage in a dialogue that allows you to share examples of your expertise that are relevant to the client and begin problem-solving together, to regularly anticipate client needs and to demonstrate that you are honest and believable. Clients make buying decisions with their heads and their hearts – you must appeal to both to make a sale.

The examples the partners in my workshops offered as best practices for demonstrating credibility include:

  • Develop deep expertise; be known as a go-to expert in your niche; thought-leader
  • Stay current on industry trends and company/client news
  • Anticipate issues before they arise; look around the corner and plan ahead for the client
  • Take a point of view
  • Express passion for and enthusiasm in the subject/what you do
  • Communicate with self-assurance
  • Speak the truth, always; don’t exaggerate, embellish or lie
  • Honest and accurate billing
  • If you don’t know something, admit it
  • If you or the firm doesn’t have the expertise a client needs, provide a good referral to someone else
  • Show you’ve done your homework
  • Have experience in similar matters, with similar clients; past successes and results
  • Convert prior knowledge to each deal
  • Be effective at story-telling; speak with expression – use body language, eye contact, tone of voice
  • Provide resources, e.g., repository of articles, speeches, podcasts, forms/templates, precedent data bases
  • Use or share testimonials from clients who are fans


Being reliable means whether or not others can trust that you’ll do what you say, when you say you will. It links your words with your actions. It means consistently delivering on your promises and meeting or beating deadlines. Reliability cannot be earned until you have proven yourself several times over the course of a short period of time. And as with credibility, there is an emotional component to be being perceived as reliable.

The examples the partners in my workshops offered as best practices for demonstrating reliability include:

  • Consistently deliver what clients want and need, on time and on budget
  • Get work to clients on or before deadlines
  • Make (and keep) a lot of small promises
  • Set expectations up front and report on regularly
  • Be on time for meetings and phone calls
  • Communicate frequently and proactively
  • Use others’ language, processes, dress codes, preferences for how to do things
  • Return e-mails/phone calls within 4-6 hours, even if just to say with respond in greater detail later
  • Use out-of-office notice if necessary to set expectations; provide an alternative contact, including your assistant
  • Don’t make a client chase you
  • Consistency of information, approach, outcome
  • Consistent quality/error free
  • Own up to your mistakes
  • Admit when you don’t know something
  • Send agenda with goals and materials in advance of meetings
  • Reconfirm scheduled calls/meetings and solicit any desired changes in the agenda


This aspect of trustworthiness does not necessitate that lawyers become close personal friends with their clients (although we all know rainmakers who vacation with clients, go to each other’s family milestone celebrations, etc.)   Intimacy in this context is about empathy, recognizing that personal agendas, stakes and emotions are in play, and about honest and open communication about the issues related to the engagement in your role as an adviser. Both the client and the lawyer must increasingly open up and put more on the table, in some ways opening up to more risk and vulnerability. Intimacy is often not an area that comes naturally or easily to lawyers and it feels scary. It also can backfire if attempted too soon or if the lawyer is disingenuous and trying too hard to please.

Some of the examples the partners in my workshops offered as best practices for demonstrating reliability include:

  • Maintain confidentiality; give clients a safe space to express their concerns, frustrations with their role, the legal department, the company
  • Listen, listen listen, not just to words, but to feelings – tune in to moods, emotions and acknowledge them
  • Be willing to name the elephant in the room
  • Tell someone you appreciate them/working with them, and why
  • Use the other person’s name frequently
  • Share something personal about yourself
  • Reach out proactively on issues that affect them
  • Convey you are constantly thinking about them; make them feel they are your “only client”
  • Know them personally – hobbies, interests, families
  • Be aware of internal politics they are dealing with
  • Explore their personal goals and aspirations
  • Make them look good/stop them from looking bad; always “have their back”
  • Help them think beyond a single issue
  • Share credit, let them think it was their idea
  • Ask for feedback – continuous improvement/investment in relationship
  • Make client feel loved, valued and prioritized
  • Make their lives easier – write cover notes they can forward
  • Smart/strategic billing – give away time


Alas, the final component of the trust equation is the one that lawyers traditionally have done the worst at: self-orientation. Remember, we want the score on self-orientation to be as low as possible as a denominator so that it doesn’t reduce the total score. Unfortunately, we all can share stories of partners who go to pitches and do all the talking or brag about their credentials and track-record and bring pitch books filled with pages about the firm and all its accolades. One reason clients hate the way many firms try to “cross-sell” their services is that they know that it is in the partner’s/firm’s self-interest to increase revenue, that partners get origination credit and therefore try to sell as many services as they think a client could possibly need. This is NOT client-facing! Self-orientation represents all those behaviors that reflect we are more focused on ourselves, our firm, our own agenda than we are on the client, and on being smart and right.

The types of behaviors that partners cite as reflecting a lawyer who has high self-orientation include:

  • Rushing to a solution, answering too quickly without thinking
  • Assuming you know what is right for a client without considering objectives, history, risk tolerance
  • Thinking first about your own goals, “what’s in it for me”
  • Hoarding information, resources, ideas; not providing direct or truthful answers
  • Talking too much, dominating the conversation
  • Competing for attention
  • Interrupting others, finishing clients’ sentences for them
  • Not listening well; fidgeting or looking disinterested or distracted
  • Checking emails while in client meetings or worse, taking a call while in a client meeting
  • Appearing desperate to land new work
  • Focusing on cross-selling to get you/the firm more business even if the client doesn’t need or want your help
  • Telling long war stories that are self-aggrandizing
  • Repeating the same stories over and over
  • It’s always about “I” or me vs. we, the team or the firm
  • Micromanaging and over-controlling
  • Acting arrogant, condescending, always being “right,” never wrong
  • Being argumentative or defensive
  • Taking credit but never taking blame
  • Overselling/embellishing credentials, bragging
  • “Pitching” – selling services or cross-selling without exploring clients’ actual needs

Despite all the changes occurring in many lawyer-client relationships as a result of disruption, innovation, a drive toward value and convergence, trust still matters. Becoming a trusted advisor requires that you develop a high level of trustworthiness and as with many aspects of effective business development and client relationship management, this takes time. It is a marathon not a sprint, a relationship not a one-night stand.

RainMaking Oasis provides consulting, training and coaching services to law firms and lawyers in the areas of business development and growth strategy, innovation, client retention and expansion, succession planning and leadership and personal effectiveness skills. Please contact Susan Duncan at [email protected].