THE MOST TRUSTED MAN[Posted July 17, 2009] A day I have long known was coming, but have long dreaded, has arrived. Walter Cronkite passed away about an hour and a half ago.
Cronkite defined an era, and a long one at that. The key to his effectiveness — and something that everyone in our profession must constantly keep in mind — was his personal credibility. I believe that if he had chosen to become a lawyer after his retirement from television news, he would have been unbeatable, for one simple reason: Every juror and every judge in America would have believed every word he said. When he ended his broadcasts with, “And that’s the way it is . . .,” we knew, by God, that he was telling us the truth. How on earth can you win against someone like that?
What’s the key to credibility like that? Any lawyer who fails to make a serious study of that question is destined to underachieve for the duration of his or her career. For it is our personal ethos that serves as a ceiling on what we can achieve, in any setting. We don’t manufacture things; we don’t provide a commodity; we don’t invent some new product. We persuade, and accordingly, no lawyer with a poor personal credibility level can ever hope to thrive in our industry. You need what Cronkite had, in order to be a good lawyer.
How do you build credibility? The simple answer is, One kept promise at a time. Never promise that you’ll deliver something by Tuesday if you’re not certain you can do that. Never undertake a task if you’re not capable of doing it competently and on time. Never go back on your word, ever. Eventually the legal and judicial community will come to recognize that you are a person who can be trusted, and your effectiveness will skyrocket.
Herb Stern, perhaps the greatest teacher of lawyers of this generation, illustrated the value of personal credibility with this simple question: “Would you rather be strong on the facts, be strong on the law, or have Abraham Lincoln as your lawyer?” This was the key to Cronkite’s effectiveness, and it’s what made him “The Most Trusted Man in America.” Lawyers could do a lot worse than to take the time and effort to emulate this quality.