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The Trust Equation: The Most Important Formula for Developing New Business

By Jay Harrington

Here’s how to apply the “trust equation” to build stronger, more trusting relationships with your prospective and current clients.

Trust Equation

Accordingly, selling legal services is relational, not transactional. It takes time. It requires consistency. Unless you’re selling a commodity, which means you’re competing on price, you need to invest in relationships to attract and keep clients.

So, how do you go about this?

In their book The Go-Giver,” Bob Burg and John David Mann provide a helpful heuristic that serves as an important starting point for this discussion:

All things being equal people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like, and trust.

The “know, like, trust” framework is pretty simple and you’ve undoubtedly heard it before. Here’s how it works:

  1. A prospective client must become aware of you and your services (know).
  2. A prospective client will choose to work with a lawyer they enjoy interacting with (like).
  3. A prospective client must gain confidence in a lawyer’s ability to deliver on their promises (trust).

Trust Is Everything

Many lawyers mistakenly assume that each of these factors holds equal weight, but trust is paramount. Susie may like Bob the lawyer personally, but Susie is unlikely to retain Bob if she doesn’t trust him professionally. On the other hand, if Susie gains a high level of trust in Bob’s ability to deliver the outcome she’s looking for, she’s probably willing to overlook the fact that Bob’s “bedside manner” isn’t great — he’s a bit of a curmudgeon.

Trust is everything. The stakes are high in the buying process for legal services. When a client seeks your services, it means they’re dealing with important issues and need assurance that you’re the right person for the job.

Unlike purchasing a physical product, where customers can “kick the tires,” procuring a service — especially a sophisticated legal service — is fundamentally different. Clients are buying based on a promise that you’ll deliver in a high-stakes matter, which is why trust is so vital.

A Dale Carnegie study explored the role of trust in the buying process, and the results were striking: 73% of respondents stated that trust is “very” or “extremely” important to them for building relationships with salespeople. While we like to call it “business development” in the legal industry, make no mistake: Lawyers are selling themselves and their services — business development is the result of sales. In the same study, 71% of respondents said they would buy from someone they trusted versus someone else who offered a lower price. (Read “Sell Yourself One Hour of Your Time.”)

Building trust with clients, prospective clients and referral sources requires a long-term commitment.

This journey requires patience, dedication and, above all, consistent delivery on your promises. Over time, small, consistent investments in understanding other people’s needs, adding value to relationships, and maintaining strong communication solidifies trust. This is the hard but rewarding work of business development.

Now let’s dive deeper and explore another framework that will help you consistently build trust with both existing and prospective clients.

The Trust Equation

The trust equation, originally conceptualized by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford in their book The Trusted Advisor, provides a formula to understand the variables that contribute to building trust. The equation is: Trust equals Credibility plus Reliability plus Intimacy divided by Self-Orientation, or T=(C+R+I)/S.

Let’s break down the trust equation into its component parts. The goal here is to equip you with an understanding of how to build trust in the business development process.


Credibility, in the context of business development, is synonymous with reputation. To what extent does a prospective client believe in a lawyer’s ability to solve a problem based on the lawyer’s past experiences?

How to establish credibility: Highlight a successful track record (case studies); create thought leadership content (make your expertise visible online); leverage social proof (testimonials and credentials).


This is all about delivering on promises, and meeting, or better yet, exceeding, expectations. Before a lawyer will get a chance to demonstrate their reliability in a legal matter, they must preview their capabilities during the business development process.

For example, I recently reached out to a contractor about doing some work on my house. He told me that he would call me back within the next few days to set up an appointment to come to my house to prepare a price quote. It’s been more than a week and I still haven’t heard from him. He’s off my list. If I can’t rely on him to call me back when he said he would before I hire him, how can I trust that he’ll reliably perform the work? It works the same way with clients buying legal services.

How to establish credibility: Do the “little things” well when engaged in business development. When you show up three minutes late to the conference call, send the proposal a day later than you said you would, or spell the client’s name wrong in an engagement letter, you erode trust. Fulfill every commitment you make with a sense of urgency and you’ll establish trust and confidence that you’re the right lawyer (the reliable lawyer) for the job.


This is where “trust” and “like” intersect in the business development process. Intimacy is all about the personal connection a client feels with their lawyer.

How to establish intimacy: Flex your emotional intelligence muscle. Engage in empathetic communication. Ask questions and show genuine concern for the client’s well-being. A lawyer who can create a strong personal connection with their clients is more likely to be trusted.

By establishing credibility plus reliability plus intimacy (the more the better) with a prospective client, you’ll lay the groundwork for trust and a successful business development outcome. However, you’ll erode trust if you seem too self-interested.


This is the extent to which a lawyer is perceived to be focused on themselves versus the client’s interests. High self-orientation (focusing on the lawyer’s own needs, interests or priorities) can diminish trust, while low self-orientation (prioritizing the client’s needs and interests) enhances it.

How to lessen self-orientation: It is pretty simple, and is at the heart of what I call “client-centric business development.” In all interactions, think “How can I help you?” instead of “How can you help me?” — leading to greater trust and stronger relationships.

Navigating Trust Erosion

Think about the last time you were at a restaurant and something went wrong — maybe they mixed up your order. Now, imagine the server quickly acknowledges the mix-up, the chef personally apologizes and whips up a new dish just for you, on the house. This moment, which could have ruined your evening, instead leaves you impressed with their dedication to making things right. It’s a perfect example of how a mishap, handled well, can actually deepen your trust and loyalty to the establishment. You might even rave about it to friends later.

The lesson here is that trust can be fragile. However, it’s not the error itself but how it’s handled that often determines the future of a client relationship.

When (not if) a mistake or oversight occurs while serving a client or during the business development process with a prospective client, the next steps a lawyer takes (or doesn’t) are crucial for either eroding or building trust. Being proactive in rectifying a problem — for example, a missed appointment — shows clients that their lawyer values their relationship and is committed to upholding high standards of service, reinforcing trust even in the face of challenges.

Systematically Apply the Trust Equation

When John Glenn was poised to become the first American to orbit the Earth, his trust wasn’t placed solely in the cutting-edge computers of the era but in the extraordinary capabilities of Katherine Johnson (a central figure in the film “Hidden Figures”), a mathematician whose calculations had already helped chart the course of space travel. Despite the increasing reliance on electronic computing, Glenn famously insisted that Johnson personally verify the orbital equations. “If she says they’re good,” Glenn declared, “then I’m ready to go.” Johnson’s hand-checked computations were a green light for Glenn’s historic flight.

For Glenn, the stakes couldn’t have been higher — his life and the success of a mission critical to the space race depended on the trust he placed in Johnson’s calculations. In the legal profession, while the stakes may not be quite so high, it’s critical to appreciate that a client’s legal issues likely keep them up at night. They place their trust in lawyers to help them navigate these challenges. That’s why trust is so important.

Applying the Trust Equation helps lawyers to systematically address the key factors that influence trust. By focusing on increasing credibility, reliability and intimacy, while minimizing self-orientation, you can build stronger, more trusting relationships with your prospective and current clients.

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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