If trust is expected, trust must also be given

The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) campaign ‘A question of trust’ is designed to explore solicitors’ professional values and standards and what they mean in practice.  Launched in autumn 2015, the campaign featured a series of roadshows and events, an online survey, and a formal public consultation on professional standards.  Through this, the SRA aims to establish ‘common ground’ on what should be considered a serious breach of the standards expected of a solicitor, and what should happen when things do go wrong.  The SRA will feedback findings from this research in early summer.

Guidance on ‘integrity’?

The SRA’s mandatory principles support trust between two parties, they convey high moral standing with words such as: ‘integrity’, ‘independence’, and ‘respect’.  My instinct tells me that we shouldn’t need guidance on the application of these principles. They are pure, straight, upright and unequivocal. But of course, I see the world through my own mental model. Like everybody, my personal worldview is built from all the events that have happened in my life to date, the knowledge I have gained, my experiences. This is influenced by my upbringing, my education, the roles I have done, the things that have happened to me and the decisions I have made. I am unique and so are you and so is every professional.

We all see the world through our own unique lens, so we need to challenge our instinct.  We cannot assume because we think something is unequivocal, that others will see the same perspective.  Whatever our personal interpretation of these principles, trust has to be earned and it is critical to the relationship between professional and client as well as within the organisation. To trust someone is ‘to believe in the reliability, truth or ability of them’. You simply can’t have a professional relationship if you don’t invest in trust.

A crisis of trust

The global financial crisis and following events have resulted in a crisis of trust.  Most notably, trust in the banks has been challenged, but the aftermath of the crisis caused people to question their trust of many aspects of the business world. Post crisis, those responsible for governance, risk and control and/or compliance have added layers of control in a bid to protect stakeholders (the board, management, shareholders, the public) from a repeat of these events.

My concern is that these layers of control have not addressed the underlying problem – the organisational culture. They have not restored trust, but they have increased cost and complexity. From the perspective of fee earners working in the ‘front line’ directly with clients, the concept of ‘risk management’ may appear to be about preventing them from taking risk or about minimising downside rather than maximising upside or revenue.

The word ‘risk’ itself has a negative connotation in the minds of many, suggesting something that is owned by the risk function and seeks to permeate other parts of the business rather than being in the DNA of the organisation.

An alternative approach

An alternative would be to reframe our mindset. Risk starts with the firm’s strategy, and the people whose role it is to execute the firm’s strategic objectives are those that are best placed to manage risk. Rather than adding more and more controls and checks, let’s start by trusting the people who represent our business in the market and with clients. Here are some practical steps you can take to help build trust in your fee earners:

  1. Purpose and objectives: Be clear about the firm’s purpose and strategic objectives to give individuals the context or framework for business decision making.
  2. Information for decision making: Provide individuals with complete, accurate and timely information to make informed decisions.
  3. Knowledge and experience: Equip individuals with the knowledge to identify risks to performance and the resilience to respond to them.
  4. Empowerment: Empower individuals to make decisions within agreed parameters.
  5. Lessons learned: Replace a blame culture with a learning culture (and follow through by investing time and money in learning and development).
  6. Control environment: Replace preventative controls with detective controls.

In other words, if trust is expected, trust must also be given.

Do I buy in to this? Yes, in principle. In fact, I think in general professional services firms do demonstrate trust in their fee earners.  My challenge is whether in practice people are trusted without being given the tools to leverage that trust. In my opinion, you are leading the market if you read points 1–6 and can say with confidence that you are supporting your fee earners in all these areas.

Louise Fleming, Partner, Aretai LLP

This article was first published in Managing Partner Magazine and is re-produced with their permission

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