Lawyers are increasingly turning to technological solutions to improve productivity and results, and the job itself requires a technical precision that is in some ways completely divorced from human emotion; there can be no emotion manipulating your stance when interpreting the law.
However, empathy is still vital for success in most legal practices. Empathy is the capacity to connect with and understand the emotions of another person. In this context, it usually refers to empathy with your clients, but may also refer to empathy with opposing counsel, judges, or potential jurors. In any case, with sufficiently high emotional intelligence, you can incorporate more empathy into your practice and ultimately see better results.
But why does it matter in the first place?
Creating Comfort for Clients
First, expressing empathy allows you to create a comfortable environment for your clients. When speaking with them one on one, you’ll be able to understand what they’re going through, and communicate with them in a way that makes sense to them. This has a number of positive effects, both for the individual case and for your practice overall.
For starters, your communication will greatly improve. Clients who trust you will be far more likely to open up; they’ll tell you more important details about their case and their circumstances, and will be more likely to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Also, because you understand what they’re thinking and feeling, you’ll be able to frame your explanations in a way that makes more sense to them. For example, if you’re practicing family law, navigating a child custody battle or a heated divorce, you’ll be able to gather more details about your client’s marriage, and you’ll be able to better inform them of their options moving forward.
Additionally, practicing empathy helps you establish a team environment. You and your client are collaborators, working on a common goal. If you’re able to relate to them and understand their frame of mind, you’ll be better capable of helping them achieve their goals.
Comfort for clients is also good for your reputation and your future. Even if you don’t win the case or see favorable results, your client will remember how well you treated them—and how comfortable they were with you. They’ll be far more likely to refer you to a friend or family member in the future, which is very important for growing practices.
Preparing for Opposition
Empathy also allows you to proactively prepare for potential opposition. There are many forces that could be working against you, depending on what type of law you’re practicing and the nature of the case. For example, if you’re defending someone being accused of a criminal act, you’ll face a prosecutor who’s going to see your client in a negative light and relentlessly attack them. If you’re fighting a custody battle, you’ll have another parent and another lawyer to contend with.
Obviously, preparing a defense is part of your job, whether or not you want to practice empathy. But empathy can make this responsibility easier—and can help you get better results. Empathy allows you to tap into the thoughts and feelings of other people, so you can anticipate and defend against them—or in some cases, exploit them as weaknesses. What is the other side thinking and feeling? What would they be willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals? What do they want to hear right now? With sufficient preparation here, you’ll be a better negotiator, and you’ll make a better argument in front of a judge and/or jury.
With this philosophy, you can improve your practice by improving your own empathy. But to many of us, empathy is unintentional; it’s a byproduct of our understanding of others. Fortunately, there are several tactics you can use to improve your own ability to practice empathy:
- Put emotions into words. First, spend more time putting emotions into words—including your own. It will help you think about feelings in a more concrete, understandable way.
- Consider the feelings and circumstances of others. Throughout daily life, ask yourself how other people might be feeling—and why they might be feeling that way.
- Mirror facial expressions and body language. When talking to other people, go out of your way to mirror their facial expressions and body language. This will help you innately feel what they feel, to a degree.
- Challenge your own biases and worldviews. Think carefully about the factors that may limit you from comprehending the circumstances of others.
No matter how naturally empathetic you are to start, you can improve your emotional intelligence and provide better services for your clients. The more time and energy you spend on these efforts, the more you’ll be rewarded.