Dentons’ Patryk Zamorski

At this year’s The Lawyer’s In-house Counsel as Business Partner conference, general counsel at TotalEnergies Marketing Services Patrice Yermia and Dentons’ Europe director of talent Patryk Zamorski gathered 12 in-house lawyers to discuss building relationships and trust in a hybrid working environment. The pair brought together two different perspectives – Yermia from in-house at a multinational integrated energy company and Zamorski from the scientific research he conducts at a global law firm.

Zamorski explained that he had been introducing hard science to the legal profession, particularly behavioural science underpinning the way it works.

“Interesting research from neuroscience has found that our brain processes physical and social pain the same,” said Zamorski. “When people feel socially excluded, they process this as real pain and they immediately lose trust in their team and leader.

“With social exclusion, performance, speed and engagement drop.”

In the post-pandemic world, people must be mindful of how inclusive they are being. Should you be running meetings with everyone online, or is it ok to keep meetings half in person, and half online?

“We already know that it is difficult to run meetings when some people are participating face-to-face and others are taking part online,” said Zamorski, “Dr David Rock at the NeuroLeadership institute developed the principle of ‘one virtual – all virtual’ – meaning that even if one person is working remotely and everyone else is in the same office, it is better to hold meetings online – this way, everyone will feel included.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Yermia and Zamorski had discussed lawyers’ soft skills, leading them to explore the concept of trust. They put together a survey to understand how trust has been impacted, and used the results to address two key questions with the group: how do you forge relationships with your company’s leadership and other department heads in order to be a true partner to the business?; and how do you maintain a productive working relationship with your external legal counsel? A total of 150 people, from lawyers in private practice, in-house lawyers and business people responded to the survey.

Yermia mentioned the theory of loss aversion bias by Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman: the response to losses is stronger than the response to corresponding gains.

Lawyers do not work in safe, stable environments and every week there are changes in law, changes in teams and how firms are run. An experiment that tests the psychology behind this is asking a group of people to change something about their appearance. Most will remove something such as a pair of glasses, a jacket, jewellery, rather than add something.

“People’s first reflex is ‘what am I going to lose?’ not what am I going to gain,” said Yermia.

“When we talk about change, such as a change in the market or in our organisations, we immediately think about what we may  lose. Still, if you are able to convince people that change can be an opportunity to gain something – this will be a way to build trust.”

Loss aversion is not the only form of bias that can impact the way people relate to each other and their work.

According to Zamorski, “Anyone who has a brain is biased. Biases can have a negative impact on our decision-making and on how we trust others, so we should try to increase our awareness of how our biases work in order to avoid these pitfalls.”

Yermia added that as a GC, he had often observed people from within the business asking to work with a specific lawyer on a piece of work.

“People have a tendency to request to work with a certain lawyer. When I ask why, they usually say he or she is the best expert. But if you ask further questions, you will understand that they feel confident and at ease with that lawyer.  It comes down to the soft skills, with confidence, instilling a sense of trust.”

Transparency is something that can improve or erode trust. Lawyers are sometimes perceived as people who are reluctant to share information or knowledge with colleagues, which can be a disadvantage. On the other hand, preserving confidentiality is a way of building trust with the business.

TotalEnergies’ Patrice Yermia

Yermia continued that he has been asked by young lawyers whether it is worth getting a business degree, which he says opens them up to new skills – in particular, collaboration and cross-pollination. While legal students often work by themselves, business students work as part of teams.

“Lawyers sometimes face a learning curve before coming to the obvious conclusion that sharing is good,” said Yermia. “Some lawyers have to learn that your production is not your property – it belongs to the company, not you.

“If you want to build trust, you share your production and ensure everyone has the same level of information, if possible.”

This forms part of collective intelligence – as legal issues are so complicated, it is necessary to have more than one lawyer at the table.

The group discussed availability – not just being available to the business but expressing it and saying “I am/I will be available for you.” Yermia stressed the importance of inviting the business to challenge the in-house legal team – with the lawyers also challenging the business.

“Most of the time, business people are very good lawyers, using common sense as a legal tool,” he said.

Zamorski noted that one way of building trust is by being a bit vulnerable – lawyers should not be expected to know everything, and sometimes by loosening the “hard lawyer exterior” they can draw people from across the business in. Humility is key – if the lawyer acts in an arrogant way, the authenticity of the relationship with the business is lost forever.

A GC from a bank agreed. “Being a bit vulnerable, as well as curious about the business, is a good thing. It helps in breaking down the perception that legal is there to block things” she said.

“You’ve got to work hard to show you’re on the same team as the business and support their project. You can build a relationship of trust so people want to come to you. If they bring you in at that start it’s a better place to be. Keep in frequent contact and show that you are curious.”

Another GC from an IT consultancy shared her experience. She had spent most her career in private practice and was now in her second in-house role – and the first lawyer in her business. The GC continued that she had prioritised relationships with IT, which she felt was helpful in terms of the business’s products.

“Trust is where the magic has happened, through the collaboration and sharing of knowledge,” she said. “In private practice we have mini business empires, even within one firm, because the partners are competing. Within a business, if you don’t have a relationship, you can’t even discuss or understand what the problem is.”

Yermia suggested spending time every Friday evening assessing the level of trust the delegates keep up – with their boss, colleagues, clients and the wider business.

One very efficient way to evaluate trust is feedback: soliciting feedback from one’s team, as well as clients. Yermia and Zamorski compared the level of trust to an account.

“What is the balance? After the assessment is the action plan,” he said.

“When we decide to select a law firm, there is a call for tenders. There is also a level of trust between the firm’s lawyers and the in-house lawyers – between the law firm and the business.

As in-house lawyers we can sense if the trust between the lawyers at the firm is weak and if they are competing with each other, which can have a negative impact on the quality of the service provided”

The survey had shown that an important factor in trust between the firm and business was respecting the budget: if a firm wins a tender but later says it cannot stick to the agreed budget, this could greatly damage trust.

The roundtable concluded with the group discussing clarity of legal advice – speaking the same language as the business rather than legal vocabulary. The group were keen to find out how best deliver challenging advice to the business, or advice that the business was not expecting.

Yermia advised thinking carefully about legal design – the way lawyers draft legal advice, present with bullet points and schemes and tables.

“Think about your audience when you’re communicating,” he said. “Another way to practice simplicity is to volunteer to teach in universities. You will learn how to break down complicated legal points and explain clearly, without softening it.”