Empathy and Emotional Connection for Lawyers | Martindale-Avvo

Empathy and Emotional Connectivity in the Legal Industry

Torts, contracts, criminal law – did you take a law school class on empathy? If you’re like the vast majority of legal professionals, the answer is no. There’s been buzz on the words “empathy” and “emotional connectivity” in the legal industry of late, as people in the profession have been rethinking the detached approach many take to legal practice. 

Empathy and emotional connectivity might feel out-of-place in the stressful environment of legal practice, but they might be fundamental to a lawyer’s ability to represent clients and improve client satisfaction. 

What Are Empathy and Emotional Connectivity?

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. It’s common for people to use the terms interchangeably to describe an emotion you might feel, or a reaction you might have, in response to another person’s experience.

But while sympathy is about feeling a sense of relief for not sharing the experience of another, empathy is about making a connection with that experience. Sympathy can be about pity and cause separation from the other person. They might feel unheard, and you might miss signals about their full emotional experience and needs.

Empathy helps you to connect to the person. You might share their emotions and become able to relate to their feelings, even if you do not have the exact experience. You can be empathetic even if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of what a person is going through. Empathy means putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand their feelings.

Empathy, therefore, is closely tied to emotional connectivity. It’s about really listening when people speak to you and also looking deep to determine what those words might mean.

Some have argued that empathy, as a general concept, is neither good nor bad. If you have a nefarious purpose, such as to make someone feel bad, you can use empathy to determine what might hurt them. If you have a virtuous purpose, such as to make someone feel good, you can use empathy to determine what might lift them up. 

Why Are They Important for Lawyers?

Because empathy and emotional connection can go both ways, some lawyers have argued empathy is at best inefficient and at worst manipulative. But Kirstin B. Gerdy argues that these skills can add to the lawyer’s capacity to do their best work in the profession by:

  • building better client rapport and therefore better relationships
  • fostering open communication
  • supporting thorough legal analysis
  • improving the image of lawyers in the eyes of the public
  • satisfying client needs and wants

Empathy is vital for a lawyer to make an effective argument to a judge or jury, or to convince another lawyer or witness to understand their point of view. A lawyer with empathy can sense whether what they say to another player in a case will make an impact on that player, or whether their words won’t make a difference. 

Does Practicing Empathy Mean Not “Thinking Like a Lawyer”?

There’s an adage that legal education helps ensure these professionals-in-training learn how to “think like a lawyer.” This generally means an emotionally distant approach deeply entrenched in logic. Thinking like a lawyer means close attention to detail, perfectionism, argumentative skill, risk-benefit analysis, and making provisions for the worst case scenario.

A cursory review of that short list and one might assume that empathy and emotional connectivity are the polar opposite of “thinking like a lawyer.” One might counter this argument by proposing that “thinking like a lawyer” can include emotional intelligence. It is a broadening, not a replacement, of the lawyer’s current skill set.

Lawyers have the responsibility to represent their client’s interests in a variety of settings: negotiation, dispute resolution, and the courtroom. One could argue it’s not possible to fully represent those interests if a lawyer does not have the empathy to properly intuit what those interests are. Empathy, one recalls, is about really listening to what others – including clients – have to say.

Clients typically hire lawyers at the time of a stressful life event or radical change. They might be facing the disruption or dissolution of their family structure. They might be facing prison time, the loss of their livelihood, or the collapse of their business. These are big legal issues, but also big human issues. A client expects a lawyer to give them reliable legal advice, but to do so in light of the client’s unique desires and goals for the outcome.

Building Empathy and Emotional Connectivity

The good news about empathy and emotional connectivity is that these capabilities, like other legal skills, can be learned. If a person has trouble relating to clients or others on an emotional level using empathy, they can hone this skill over time. It typically starts with a willingness to incorporate these “soft skills” into one’s practice.

There are other strategies you can adopt to develop empathy and emotional connectivity:

Meet your clients in their environment. Many small firm practitioners are already mobile, going to where clients are and need help, like the hospital or holding cell. But extending this practice to encompass as many clients as possible can open the lawyer’s eyes to different types of human experience they might not otherwise see. As an example, a lawyer who agrees to help low-income tenants fight the threat of eviction might have more empathy for these clients once she sees how they actually live.

Role play interactions with another lawyer. Sometimes practice makes perfect, and the only way to get practice is to perform a simulated scenario. While it might not be “the real thing,” it gives you a chance to figure out how to listen and how to speak in an empathetic way. Role playing with legal colleagues gives you the opportunity to swap feedback and tips on what works and what doesn’t in these conversations. Your partner can tell you – and vice versa – what body language, word usage, and other factors that detract from empathy.

Get in touch with your own emotions. You might start by recognizing how you’re feeling at different times of day, and why you might be experiencing those emotions. This can give you a basis upon which to develop empathy. It can also turn you into a better lawyer if you can manage and regulate feelings like anger and frustration. These are the kinds of feelings that can lead to behavior that clients dislike – and that can turn into professional misconduct claims.

Grow Your Legal Practice With Martindale-Avvo

Developing empathy and emotional connectivity is just one strategy to build your legal practice. By working with Martindale-Avvo, you can find new ways to grow. Contact us today to learn about the services we offer

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