How do I build trust within my business?

A community clinic article - an initiative for you and by you.

Be clear to yourself and to others what your role is and do it openly, transparently, with consistency and humility and to the best of your ability. 

Don’t do other people’s jobs for them either by over-reach or by being overly helpful and being dumped on by others – remember that you are there to be very good at what you do – not at what others do - and to work hard and smart but not to overwork (hours or content).

Don’t substitute your judgement (particularly around what is a risk or an issue) for those of others – be clear that you are helping them to get it right and that they, and not you, must take informed and accountable decisions – including on risk - for their areas of responsibility – but don’t shirk taking clear and accountable decisions for things that are your responsibility either – we are paid to define the location of the fence between legally good and bad, not to sit on it!  

Keep confidences, don’t politic or gossip but understand when it is happening and work to neutralise it.

Be calm, clear and collected – like the ship’s navigator – you add most value providing the calm and the direction in the storm.

Be well networked, well known, and well informed.

Be yourself!

Bruce Macmillan - General Counsel at Irwin Mitchell

Build effective relationships with the people you support in the business.  If they get to know you and respect what you are doing then there is a good chance they will bring you in early on matters as well as trust you. 

Ian White and Simon McCall - In-house legal consultants

By investing in relationships and ensuring your colleagues see you as part of the business albeit with a different role – if you develop a good relationship with them and your colleagues understand where you are coming from, and you understand what they need to do to deliver, this helps build trust and therefore you are more likely to be able to influence them even when you might not agree with them. Challenge and conflict are inevitable in many business situations but if you have a relationship and your colleagues know you as a person and believe you have empathy with what they are trying to achieve then trust will naturally flow from that, but it will take time.

Chris Fowler - Chief Operating Officer - Legal, Rio Tinto

Be proactive 

… both in getting to know the business, and in pre-empting any issues which might arise. As part of the proactive approach, I tend to:

  • ensure horizon-scanning is a weekly event – for example, by signing up to news briefings from law firms and other commercial bulletins from players within the industry you work.
  • get involved in projects and planning as soon as possible (see How do I get involved in commercial projects early to ensure legal issues are raised in a timely manner?).
  • ensure the business has the tools it needs to deal with straightforward legal hurdles – for example, by way of preparing guidance/ advice notes, template documents, playbooks etc.

Be clear in the way you communicate

It may sound obvious but be user-friendly in the way you deliver your advice to the business. One of the best tips I’ve been given is to “write like a journalist, and not like a lawyer”. To that end, make sure you:

  • avoid legal jargon.
  • are solutions-focused – in particular, don’t write chapter-and-verse about what the law says, but summarise what it means for the business, and what the options are going forward.
  • don’t tip-toe around the issue or the difficult advice – the business will (even if only with hindsight!) be grateful for your direct honesty. 
  • are an active listener, and prioritise what the business’ goals are (and not what you think they might/ should be).

Be approachable

The easier it is for people to come to you, the more you’ll get involved with all corners of the business. 

As noted above, you should be able to achieve this by showing your colleagues that you’re as much a business/ commercial adviser and confidant as you are a legal one. 

And don’t forget to embrace your human side too – you’ll be a far more approachable lawyer if you show some vulnerability and openness. On that point, I find that there’s strength in saying “I don’t know, but I will find out”, or in answering a question with ten more questions. 

Gethin Bennett - Assistant Legal Counsel - The Royal Mint

Some of the things which build trust are about you, and some of them are about the organisation you work in. I have said quite a bit about the former in previous answers, so I will try and focus on the latter here. 

I have worked in a range of different organisations, and they have all had their own unique culture and values. Behaviour that would be trust inducing in one could be trust destroying in another. Organisations can vary in terms of the value they ascribe, for example, to collaboration vs competition, to control vs change, to hierarchy vs merit, and so on. 

Sometimes these factors more or less align to the official values statements that are posted ubiquitously on walls, but often the codes of behaviour are unwritten and are traps for the uninitiated. Someone who consciously or unconsciously works in a way that is at odds with the accepted organisational norms will often be perceived as an outsider, someone who doesn’t get it, or is not “on the bus.”

This presents a tricky situation for in-house lawyers. We are regulated professionals bound by ethical rules and obligations to the court as well as our client. Our ability to give independent advice can be compromised where we accept without question the values and priorities of the organisation that we happen to be working for at any one time. As in-house lawyers, we have to keep one foot in and one foot out of the organisational culture. 

One way to do this is to maintain our self-identity as lawyers who are part of a wider profession. Another way to keep that balance is to remember that you have two hats. Sometimes I will say to an internal client that I am “putting on my lawyer hat now”, or “If a judge looked at this, they might ask why we didn’t do x, y or z”, where I want to lean into my legal identity. Other times I will say “I am putting on my colleague” hat if I want to tap into organisational values that I think could positively influence an internal client towards a more constructive approach to a problem.

To do that you need to be a close observer of the organisation of which you part, a good listener and a mindful and flexible communicator. None of which they teach you in law school but all of which there is ample opportunity to develop in any in-house role!

Michael Phillips - Head of Legal (Advice and Central Functions), Schroders Personal Wealth

This is a big question – for lawyers, I think it has to be about consistency of approach while being willing to accept challenge and engage with internal clients when your advice is making life difficult for them. Finding mitigations, working through alternative ways of achieving the same aim, digging into the wider rationale for a course of action so it can be set against the risks – making for an overall balancing exercise that is comprehensive and assists rather than hampers reaching a business decision. And although it’s obvious, being curious about what’s going on for your clients, what their worries and pressures are can take you beyond just being “the lawyer” into being a trusted adviser. 

Rebecca Staheli - Head of Competition and Regulatory Law, BBC

Most of the professions – law included – are great at ensuring their members are technically competent.  Over many years of study and training, we learn how to analyse facts and options. We become skilled at applying that technical competence to any situation.   Sometimes, though, clients can feel that the discussion is rather one-sided.   They may feel that they’re being told rather than heard, or they’re being given an off-the-shelf solution.  They may also feel that the lawyer is interested only in the problem, rather than why the problem is important to them.

One of the most effective professionals I know often ends their conversations with the words ‘and what else?’  More often than not, they find that doesn’t conclude the conversation at all, but instead opens new avenues of discussion.   It helps them to understand what the client thinks is important – and why.   They build their understanding of the client – not just as someone holding a role, but as a person.  They create empathy which allows them to share information which neither would otherwise know – and which can be critical to building trust.

It has been said that you don’t build trust – you earn it.  You will not get it solely because of your position, your reputation, your qualifications, or your experience.  If you want colleagues to trust you, you must show them why they should do so – that you understand them and their aims. As with loyalty, you must invest in showing trust before you get it in return.

This isn’t just about introducing yourself to relevant people in your business – although of course that helps.   If you don’t talk to colleagues, it’s very hard for them to know and trust you.    But that isn’t enough.   Think about what you can do to show them how valuable you are, and what you can bring, to them in their specific situation or role.

How you do this must depend on your business, on the individuals within it, and on the understanding you build with them.   It might include providing documents or checklists which make their life easier.   It could include going along to their team meetings – perhaps even as an observer. Almost certainly it will include checking in with them regularly and visiting their projects or operations.   It will take time – and it isn’t just about working on transactions.   If you think about the people that you yourself trust, you’ll be likely to find that it isn’t just because you believe they are professionally competent.   Indeed, you may well be able to think of people who know their stuff brilliantly, but whom you don’t really trust.

Taking that further, as an in-house lawyer, logically you might well put all your external legal work to a single firm.  It would be more efficient and may well cost less.  In reality, though, even where organisations run a formal sourcing process, you may well find you pick people rather than firms.   If you can spend some time thinking about why you trust others, it really helps you consider why others should trust you.

Of course, you will want to ensure your colleagues know they can rely on you, that you will keep your word, and will deliver what you have promised.   If you can also show that you understand and will help them to achieve their aims, you are on the journey to building trust.

Richard Tapp - legal sector specialist

Building trust is critical for anyone working in a business organisation. It is especially important for a lawyer because you will be asking your business colleagues to invest significant time and effort in explaining things to you, when they may be unclear about what is in it for them and what you need. 

As a lawyer, you need to apply the law to the way that the business operates in practice. This means you need to understand how the business really works. This may be different to what is said in corporate websites. 

Lawyers are also one of a few roles in a business organisation which also have an escalation and risk management function. The tension between being someone who meets commercial objectives and manages risks means that you need to 'wear many hats' and explain how you work. 

Some steps which may help you build trust: 

  • Get a sense of how trusted you are right now. Do your business colleagues speak to you openly and candidly? If they are holding things back, can you think of reasons why? Is fear of unpredictable timelines and complexity an issue?  Can you share quick steers and increase visibility as things progress?   
  • Assess whether your working environment supports you acting with integrity, courage and vulnerability. How uncomfortable do you feel when making decisions with limited and imperfect information? Can you do more to explain how you meet business objectives?
  • Do you follow through on your commitments? How predictable are your timelines? Do you know how long the business expects legal work to take, and is this the same or does this differ to how long it actually takes? What can you do to increase alignment?
  • When things do not go to plan, how do you handle it? Are you proactive in managing delays and communicating them to the business? Do you give early visibility of anticipated changes to timelines?

By getting a sense of how trusted you are right now, how your working environment supports you, how you act on commitments and how you react when things go wrong can all be helpful to increase trust with your business. 

Jonathan Friend - Senior Lawyer, Information Rights, BBC