REUTERS | A man carrying an umbrella walks across the Old Town Square during a rainstorm in Prague, May 30, 2013. REUTERS/David W Cerny

The importance of empathy for lawyers

I remember when I first went into law being asked “which area do you want to specialise in?” My response was swift given it was a second career after teaching in inner-city London. I would always reply, “I don’t want to do law with a human face.” I knew what I meant by that, no family law or criminal law for me, I wanted to immerse myself in documents and facts. So, I became a corporate lawyer, but it wasn’t really for me, I missed the human side after all.

I learnt a lot about myself: that I can knuckle down and pay great attention to detail, and that I can absorb facts and make a cogent argument. However, in doing so, I was suppressing part of myself and that part (although I did not know it at the time) was my desire to understand the human being behind the legal problem. I was interested in the emotion that surrounds the client when faced with a situation that could mean their livelihood, contact with their children, reputation, business or home could be on the line.

Emotional resonance

I have now worked at LawCare for nearly 13 years and over that time I have listened to legal professionals on many confidential helpline calls, and more recently via online chats and emails. What I have learnt is that underneath the façade of a lawyer, the suit, the immaculate appearance, the posturing, the bluff, the defensiveness, is always a human heart.

At the root of all we do as lawyers, empathy and human connection is essential in helping us relate not only to clients, but also to each other in the legal workplace.
The word empathy only came into common usage in the 1890s as a translation of the German word einfuhlung, which translates literally as in-feeling or vicarious sensation. There are many definitions, but the one I like best is from Tiffany Watt-Smith’s book, Human Emotions, which defines empathy as:

“a feeling of emotional resonance between people … the ability to intuit the distress of another, or to feel a faint echo of their excitement, and therefore respond in ways that bring the other person closer, rather than alienate them.”

Emotional competency

Over the past few years, there has been a noticeable shift in some areas of law away from the traditional “thinking like a lawyer” rhetoric. There has been a growing awareness that what makes a great lawyer is not just our ability to think, reason and analyse, but our emotional competency, sometimes known as soft skills. Emotional competency is about how we understand and handle our emotions, as well as identifying and interpreting emotional responses around us and being empathetic in our actions.

Using empathy helps you to work out why someone is behaving the way that they do. That human connection and understanding is often what gets us hired for a job, helps us placate a difficult client, builds our connection with the judge or jury, and drives our passion to win a case. Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, tells his daughter Scout:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Becoming aware of others’ emotions

Most of us are naturally empathetic but sometimes the practice of law can dampen this down. Empathy is not traditionally seen as a key component of being a lawyer, so we don’t prioritise it. We tell ourselves to toughen up and not bring emotion into decisions. We berate ourselves for feeling too much about a case or an incident at work.

If you feel you have lost touch with your empathetic side, it’s possible to nurture this by becoming more aware of your own and other people’s emotions and taking a moment to reflect before you react. You could ask yourself, “I wonder what they are feeling” or “If I were them, what would I want to know?” I promise you that if you tap into your natural empathy for others and engage more with your emotions, you will have better, more understanding, and more professionally satisfying relationships. The result of this approach will ultimately mean that you provide a better service to your clients.

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One thought on “The importance of empathy for lawyers

  1. I don’t disagree with what is being said here but for me the most interesting question is, given that “most of us are naturally emphatic” WHY does “the practice of law dampen that down”? Where are we going wrong in the law for that to be the case and do we need to address that, as well as just tapping into our natural empathy?

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