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Law Firm Growth

No Trust, No Firm: Vanishing the Elephant From the Conference Room

By Wendy Merrill

Signs there is a trust issue in your law firm — and ways to make it disappear.

law firm trust issues

In 1918, Harry Houdini performed an illusion in which he made a 5-ton elephant named Jennie disappear in front of a live audience. This became one of his most famous tricks, and long after his death, the method he used to make Jennie disappear remains a secret.

Over a century later, there is an elephant in the room in law firms across the country that could use a little disappearing. Its name? Distrust. This imposing pachyderm crashes partner meetings, sabotages marketing campaigns and threatens firm profitability. To vanish the elephant, firms must first recognize its presence.

Identifying Trust Issues

A few years ago, I was facilitating a strategic planning meeting with a group of partners from an established firm. The topics of compensation and succession planning came up and were met with raised eyebrows and strained faces. As I attempted to inspire a robust discussion about these important agenda items, the managing partner decreed that the partners were fine with the 15-year-old compensation system and that no one was planning to retire for at least five years.

Based on pre-session discussions with each partner, I knew this wasn’t true. I waited, surveying the room, hoping that someone would have the courage to speak up, but his comments had sucked the oxygen from the room. Finally, I broke the silence and addressed the MP’s comments directly. I told him I had received feedback that led me to believe that his partners were anxious to revise their compensation and were concerned about a few of the septuagenarians in the group who had not yet announced their future plans.  

The elephant of distrust revealed itself in both the managing partner’s perplexed expression and the rest of the partners’ blank stares. No magic trick or optical illusion would make this elephant vanish. The only way to exit the beast was to get the group to recognize it and collectively decide on the best way to make it disappear.

I told the group I was deeply concerned about what I perceived to be an absence of trust, and that if we did not address the elephant in the room, the firm’s future was on shaky ground.

Closing the Trust Gap

Once the issue was identified, a few of the partners started to speak up. They shared their concerns and discussed ideas, and when the managing partner tried to command the conversation, the now-outspoken partners called him out for it. While the conversation became heated at times, it was ultimately a productive one. Once the MP recognized his partners’ concerns, they relaxed and the elephant shrunk in size.

As part of the firm’s strategic plan, the partners agreed to have more frequent, candid and respectful dialogues in a structured format, the purpose of which was to foster an environment of mutual trust among leadership. The ultimate goal was to Houdini the distrust elephant for good, and with each meeting, the metaphorical mammal moved closer to the door.

Telltale Signs Your Firm Has Trust Issues

Here are some signs there is a trust problem in your law firm:

  • After each partner meeting, there are always several “meetings after the meeting” held behind closed doors.
  • During each partner meeting, fewer than 50% of the attendees actively participate in the discussion.
  • There have been a number of recent attorney and staff departures.
  • Few (or none) of the associates have expressed interest in becoming partners.
  • The most senior partners are hesitant to discuss their succession.
  • Meetings are often tense and yelling is not uncommon.

A Few Tips for Vanishing the Elephant

  • Set up systems and parameters for frequent and productive discussions, complete with measurable goals and an expectation of 100% participation.
  • Create a “safer” space in which partners are candid about their individual goals, motivation, concerns, fears and opportunities.
  • Establish an expectation that important discussions (and decisions) pertaining to the leadership of the firm be reserved for regularly scheduled partner meetings instead of in a power vacuum of silos.
  • Engage a professional facilitator who is skilled in helping law firms manage conflict and change to run regular meetings at the partner level and within practice groups.

Law firms are in the trust business. Clients seek guidance and advice and trust their attorneys to provide solutions to their most complex problems. If a firm struggles with internal trust issues, this will directly affect its lawyers’ ability to consistently deliver excellence to clients.

No Trust, No Firm

In the horse world, there is a common saying: “No hoof, no horse.” This refers to the importance of providing the utmost care to a horse’s hooves through regular maintenance, nutrition and consideration of ground conditions. If I don’t take care of my horse’s feet, not only won’t I be able to ride, she could lose her ability to walk, and eventually even her life.

In the practice of law, it’s “No trust, no firm.” If the firm does not make painstaking efforts to foster a culture of mutual trust, its leadership will be ineffective, people will leave, and there will be an exodus of clients.

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Wendy Merrill Wendy Merrill

Wendy Merrill is a fierce advocate for improving the practice of law. She has worked with thousands of lawyers around the world, providing practical guidance and proven techniques designed to help lawyers and their firms thrive. Wendy is both the proud CEO of StrategyHorse, a consulting firm committed to boosting law firm profitability with proven strategies, and co-founder of The Savvy Advocate, a unique associate training program designed to prepare younger lawyers and their firms for success. She is also an author and prominent speaker on law firm growth strategy, winning the war for legal talent, bridging the generational gap in law firms, and more.

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