Trust Me, I’m a Lawyer…

The world’s largest public relations firm, Edelman, released the results of its annual Trust Barometer study in February.

Each year, I look forward to the results for no other reason than to gauge the impact of changing public expectations on the business of law.

Edelman’s methodology included surveying 33,000 people in 27 markets around the world regarding their trust in information sources and the specific issues that influence trust in business and government.

Some of the statistics in this year’s study surprised me. There are implications for private law firms both big and small.

1. Trust in non-governmental organizations is increasing across the globe. Trust in government and media has declined. Implication: if you haven’t factored social responsibility into your firm strategy, it’s time to do so.

2. Canadian companies are the fourth most trusted in the world, behind Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, but ahead of the U.S., U.K. and Japan. Implication: good news for those of you in Canadian firms with plans for international expansion or doing work for an international clientele.

3. In North America, small-medium sized business (78%) is trusted more than privately held (63%) and big business (45%). Implication: smaller firms are considered more entrepreneurial, innovative and responsive to client needs. They have more opportunities than they might realize to attract work from larger firms that are slower to adapt.

4. Only 26% of those surveyed trust business leaders to correct issues within industries that are experiencing problems. If it’s any consolation, only 15% would count on government to lead the charge. Implication: real opportunities exist for firms willing to take the plunge and lead discussions about how the practice of law will need to evolve if it is to earn improved levels of public trust.

5. Employees – not the CEO or firm leaders – are considered the most influential authority on a firm’s purpose, integrity, services and operations. Implication: law firms have untapped opportunities to engage and align employees. But this will require a departure from tradition – i.e. shifting the mode of operation from “command and control” to one of transparency and shared meaning.

Before you dismiss studies such as the Trust Barometer as irrelevant to the practice of law, consider this: regulated professions are expected to hold public trust not just in terms of compliance, but also in terms of leadership. When the public doubts an industry’s desire to anticipate and meet its needs, confidence, esteem and respect fade. No one wants that for the legal profession – least of all, me.

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