Building Valuable Client Relationships: Part 2: It’s About Trust

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Trust and Attorney Client Relationships Moving your relationship from one of attorney/client to trusted advisor involves a great deal of trust.  The client must emotionally invest in you.  He must believe you have his best interests at heart and he must feel as though he is your only (most important) client.

Developing this type of relationship with 1,10, 20 or 200 clients is an enormous undertaking.  Most lawyers cannot do it.

There are five essential elements of trust-based relationships.  If you focus on these you will grow your law practice but more importantly, develop deep relationships that stand the test of time.


The first element of trust is integrity.  It is foundational.  Without it there is nothing.

You must do what you say you are going to do, every time.  Consider commitments carefully. Integrity is like having an emotional bank account. Each interaction with a client either adds to the account or withdraws from it. Keep your word and you have made a deposit.  Break it and you have made a withdrawal.  When you are overdrawn, the account is closed.

Transparency is also an important window into your integrity. The things you don’t reveal are often the most damaging (or potentially damaging).  You need to be proactively transparent with your clients.  Let them know what is going on behind the scenes.  Defend them when they are not in the room.

Honesty is paramount.  The client must hear the truth even when it hurts.  Dishonesty will lead to the death of a relationship.


Confidence comes from predictability.  There should be no surprises for your clients.  Your client should know how to reach you. He must understand the rules for when and where he can call you and what to expect from you at all times.

As you develop a strategy for your client and the work you will do together, you must establish reasonable expectations.  Pie-in-the-sky promises are a sure way to destroy a relationship.  Be realistic and truthful in your assessment of the client’s situation.  He must be able to count on you giving it to him straight at all times.

Direct Communication

The client’s feelings are a secondary concern when you communicate with him.  Be direct, blunt and leave nothing unsaid.  He expects that from you.  If you are going to error, make your mistake on the side of over communication. Give the client too much information rather than too little.  Don’t have him learn of new developments in his matter from anyone else.

Clients have the tendency to be passive/aggressive with their lawyers. They are reluctant to openly disagree with them due to their lack of knowledge of the law.  Yet they will take veiled “shots” at the lawyer in casual conversation.  You must address this when it happens.  This type of behavior is not only unhelpful, it can be downright destructive to a relationship. Let the client know it is unacceptable.


You only goal in taking a case or working on a matter is to achieve the best possible outcome given the circumstances. Forget about the exposure you are going to receive because of this matter.  Forget about the huge fees you are running up.  Forget about the circus sideshow following you around.  Your goal and the client’s goal must be in alignment and all consuming.

This is the one element most attorneys miss and it is the easiest for the client to detect.  Your client is not only smarter than you give him credit for being, he is also more intuitive.  He can sense your motivation.  If you want a long term relationship with the client, your intentions must be pure.

External Orientation

The client comes first.  Period. End of story.

Every conversation starts with and ends with the client. If he doesn’t ask about your kids, your family, or your latest vacation, don’t bring it up.  If he doesn’t want to talk about the big fish you caught last week or if he doesn’t ask about the 67 you shot on the golf course, don’t tell him.  And never, ever, talk to him about how great a lawyer you are (after he has hired you).  If he cannot tell, from the results, from the way you handle yourself, from the activity on current matters, promoting yourself to him will only seem needy and defensive.

In reading through the five elements of trust, you may think there is a great deal to remember.  In reality, this should be natural behavior.  Think about it.  If you are following the Golden Rule and you respect everyone, why should your behavior with a client be different?

Sometimes life (and the practice of law) imposes faux values upon us. We see someone with questionable ethics or manners enjoy success and we believe their behavior is appropriate and required.  Ultimately, we need to look in the mirror and be happy with what we see.  If we are, and the client cannot accept and appreciate that, we must continue to search for better quality clients.

In case you missed the previous article in this series, a link is included below:

Building Valuable Client Relationships Part 1

This article offers some insight into the different types of relationships in the world of the attorney.  Marketing can only play a role after you know which type of relationship you want to create.  This framework is helpful in understanding how deep, long lasting relationships form.