Trust is an irreplaceable element of the service lawyers provide. Attorneys convince clients that they are willing and able to help solve problems, and clients believe that lawyers will help them. When that trust is broken, consequences for attorneys can include lost business and even malpractice suits. Possessing merely a shallow understanding of trust can leave lawyers unprepared to navigate the complexities of client relationships.

What is trust, this intangible thing that is part of every contract between people?

Trust is multivalent. Lawyers may ask themselves: “Do I trust my client? Do I really trust myself to handle his affairs? Do I trust the firm to back me up if he complains or something goes wrong?” Clients wonder, “Is my lawyer really looking out for me?”

But on a deeper level, trust is one of the basic accomplishments of psychological life. Humans’ ability to trust develops in various stages. Trust injuries that happen throughout a person’s development can resonate later in adult relationships, including lawyer-client relationships.

It marks a big transition in an infant’s life when she moves from fearing that her mother who leaves the room is gone forever to knowing that her mother will reappear at some point. This knowledge is called object constancy, and it encompasses a baby’s ability to hold the idea of her mother in her mind even after her mother’s disappearance. The baby who has achieved object constancy remains calm, where before she would have burst into tears.

An inescapable part of growing up occurs when others break one’s trust. This commonly occurs for young adults when parents divorce, a friend abandons a long-held relationship, a girlfriend goes out with another guy, a favorite teacher gives an unexpected bad grade, etc. At more serious levels, breaches of trust occur when a thief breaks into the family home, a minister makes a pass at a congregant or a wife has an affair.

At all stages of life, human beings inadvertently or intentionally violate one another’s trust. This occurs despite the human tendency to work hard to avoid such betrayals. Developmentally, it is important that these things happen, because they help people move from the condition I call naive trust to the more fluid and complex level of basic trust. The term “basic trust” comes from work in developmental psychology that says a person with a secure attachment to parents in early life later will possess an inner confidence that problems in the world can be safely worked out.

Consider differences between the two kinds of trust. Naive trust cannot tolerate shades of gray or human failure; basic trust does. Naive trust is not really trust at all but rather an attempt at certainty, and it refuses to acknowledge that control lies outside the self. Basic trust accepts that ultimate control is beyond one’s grasp. Naive trust, which other people and events always will violate, frequently brings relationships to an end; basic trust makes their duration and growth possible. Naive trust says that, unless the other person can eliminate his human fallibility, the relationship has no future; it demands perfection. Basic trust, tempered in the slow fire of everyday life, says, “I know there will be slips and falls along the way, but things will come right in the end.” It accepts that humans are inherently flawed.

Lean on Lawyers

So, what does all this have to do with lawyers? No matter how grown up a client appears, the attorney-client relationship so closely resembles the parent-child relationship on an emotional level that the client essentially comes into the relationship with an unacknowledged, sizable share of naive trust in play. Just as, before the teenage years, a child may believe parents to be infallible, a client may believe a lawyer never makes mistakes and can fix all the client’s problems. Recall that the root of the word “client” means “one who leans on another” and is shared with words like “incline” and “decline.”

For a client, experientially, leaning on a lawyer is reminiscent of childhood, when the client was dependent on the parent/protector. As one on whom a client leans on, a lawyer must provide the client with a secure attachment and honor his basic trust, while never losing sight of the fact that the client, to some extent, is trying to give the lawyer his naive trust. Psychologically, the client — a child — has the sense that he has engaged a powerful party — a parent — to engage with forces over which he is powerless. I propose that this psychology holds even at the level of vast corporations engaging with gigantic law firms, because at bottom, there are individuals dealing with others.

Lawyers must be aware of this dynamic or they will be blindsided by strong client emotions in the face of what may appear to be minor setbacks or mistakes. Clients fire their lawyers or file malpractice suits when the attorneys violate the clients’ often-unacknowledged naive trust. In the same way that responsible parents understand they should not lie to their children, the lawyer should understand that she cannot lie or misrepresent anything to her client. To do so is to invite disaster, and that disaster often is worse for the lawyer than for the client.

Clients and trust