I’ve been thinking about writing this post for some time. While it may appear a little off-topic from solo practice it really isn’t. Please bear with me.
The past decade has showcased through both our pocketbooks and heartbreaking imagery just how deeply and permanently wounded we are by the deception, corruption and greed which have gone unchecked in corporate America (and around the world) for so long. No one remains unaffected. No one can really hide from it. No one can responsibly deny it although they will try. The Gulf oil spill (this is a must read) epitomizes all that is so terribly wrong with corporate behavior, corporate agendas and those government agencies who are responsible for oversight. And yet people still confuse supporting capitalism with supporting killer corporations and corrupt agencies. But that’s not for this blog or this blog post.
With the as-yet-to-be-truly-felt impact of the mortgage debacle, the far-reaching economical and environmental effects of the Enrons and BPs of this world, Big Pharma destroying our bodies under the highly profitable guise of helping us, the USDA okaying the use of beef cattle with bovine leukeumia (even organic beef cattle) possibly linked to various cancers, cover ups from trusted advisors which can destroy you physically, and the rocking of our world from every quarter creating instability in every aspect of our lives, how can one not have an unhealthy distrust of everything and everyone. When you are backed into a corner fighting for your basic survival needs and feel helpless when you believe you are doing everything right what do you do? Who do you trust?
The legal industry (including law schools) has not been spared its share of failings and has accumulated countless detractors. This profession has long been under a black cloud for its opaque billing practices, Big Law sweat shops, corporate agendas similar to those of big corporations. And it has been knocked down quite a few pegs this past decade by being outed for their deceptive practices.
It is human nature to trust, to want to trust, to be hopeful, to be part of change. A society can’t survive without trust. And to violate another’s trust in you is the worst imaginable…at least for me.
There is actually a silver lining, however, in this ever-growing world of distrust. Due to social media, the viral nature of information today, those who would look to deceive, suppress, deny accountability through carefully crafted public relations nonsense can’t stem the leaks. Everything is being exposed. Everything is being digitally memorialized. And everything can be digitally altered out of context. Everyone truly does live and work in the proverbial glass house today.
You can only control yourself and your own actions.
How does this tie into building a solo practice? Solo by solo, client by client, we have a unique opportunity to change perceptions and cultivate trust.
Lessons learned and how to build trust:
1. If you can’t handle a situation get and accept help.
Your first and only consideration should be the client.
As a solo you may be very tempted to take on matters you may not be able to handle because you need the money or you actually believe you are capable of handling the work even though a case of this type has never crossed your desk before. Money and a false sense of capability can have catastrophic effects. Seek out the help of others more experienced then yourself. This doesn’t mean turning the case over, necessarily. It means creating a responsible professional relationship with someone who has more experience. It means first and foremost always putting the client first. Had BP and the US Government quickly acknowledged their inability to handle the oil spill, put the unique and challenging demands of the catastrophe ahead of their pride and put the clean up in the hands of those more experienced, the disaster could have been averted at best or at least greatly minimized. The government could have earned our trust and our support for future catastrophes which impact all of our lives so profoundly.
2. If you make a mistake which can adversely impact your client, own it quickly before you create irreparable harm. With the fear of malpractice suits, grievances and being broadcasted as incompetent on the internet from your hometown to Beijing, sometimes it is tempting to cover up mistakes rather than own them and look to make the client whole. As a solo practitioner, there is sometimes a disproportionate fear because you have no one to share the load, no Big Law firm to dilute the responsibility and finance the defense if a mistake is made. This is an undeniable part of going solo. However, there is something very powerful in these two words, ‘I’m sorry.’
In the DiLieto malpractice suit, had the doctors acknowledged their errors early on instead of engaging in a massive cover up, the end result would have been quite different. DiLieto might not have suffered such physical and emotional distress, the lawsuit might not have generated such a punitive monetary award, the reputation of all those involved even by association would not have been tarnished. Trust could have been reestablished by doing the absolute correct thing professionally and morally.
Acknowledge. Apologize. Accept the consequences of your mistakes.
3. Never do anything you can’t defend with the truth. We live in a very naked world. Even if you opt not to actively and enthusiastically engage on the web or through social media platforms, it doesn’t mean others won’t talk about you professionally or personally. You can never really control what people will do with what you say if they choose to take it out of context for their own purposes. That is why it is imperative you never do anything you can’t defend with the truth.
Free and protected speech, especially on the internet, forces all of us who live and die by our reputations to be completely transparent. Those who understand the value of this transparency understand it earns trust. And this brings us full circle. People inherently want to trust. Your clients want to trust you. They truly want to believe you have their best interests at heart and will follow your advice accordingly if you’ve earned their trust. And as solos who are totally responsible for our professional decisions, by doing the right thing even when we risk professional rebuke or financial penalty, we honor our clients, we live up to our professional responsibilities, create greater trust, and change the image of the legal profession one lawyer at a time.
What do you think?