Embrace the Empathy Piece

Men Women Lawyers Empathy

I have been catching up on business leadership books and articles lately, and have come to the conclusion that three skills essential for successful leadership going forward may leave lawyers in the dust unless we rapidly embrace them. They fall into the area of empathy. Out of all the impressive skills that lawyers have, empathy is a small piece of the pie. We should change that.

A lot of the historical “street cred” of lawyers is being challenged. We used to be able to wrap ourselves in the mantle of authority conferred on us by the institutions reflected in our framed diplomas. From our high-backed chairs behind big desks, we could command associates and dictate strategy to clients that was unquestioningly followed. No longer.

Clients are demanding more. More responsiveness, more understanding, more value. Technology is allowing us to meet those increased demands and requiring us to figure out our own value beyond the legal information now so readily available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. And associates in our law firms are questioning authority and asking for a seat at the table long before many partners think they have been at the firm long enough to have their voices heard.

In order to get our bearings and succeed in the rapidly changing legal environment, we need to change. Our organizations need to innovate to better serve our clients, which means we need to develop and use different skills than we have cultivated in the past. What follows are three related skills to put in your toolbox.

1. Listening

Listening not just presenting. We learn all about presenting an argument in law school. From trial advocacy to moot court to clinical experiences, we hone our presentation skills. We further hone those skills in practice as we advance our clients’ positions in litigation or in deals. We present our argument, say, in support of a motion and then pause while opposing counsel says something (we think is unlikely to be persuasive) and until it is our turn to talk again. The idea, apparently, is to wow the judge with oral advocacy. We lawyers typically ask questions of witnesses in order to pin them down, not really asking in order to listen to the response or to learn anything. The problem is, clients (and colleagues and opponents, for that matter) want to be truly heard—not pinned down or nullified. Effectively asking questions and listening to the answers will allow us to figure out how to serve and keep our clients. The most productive question may be just three letters: why? Ask and ask it again. Ask again to get to the root of the issue. Only by listening to understand will you be able to also use the next two important skills: to empathize and collaborate.

2. Empathizing

Empathizing not just analyzing. We are taught in law school that the law is applied in a dispassionate fashion and that feelings have no part in the legal system. The intellectual rigor of law school and the somewhat arcane statute-based approach appeal to individuals who are more analytical than emotional in their approach to life. It seems that the legal profession is made up of vastly more thinkers (those who put more weight on objective principles and impersonal facts in decision-making) than feelers (those who emphasize personal concerns and the people involved in decision-making). In fact, in a 1993 study by Richards, the Myers-Briggs dimensions of the lawyer population compared to the general population indicates that lawyers are more than twice as likely as the general population to approach decision-making from a thinking rather than a feeling perspective. See the chart above.

From a client’s perspective, the most important piece of the pie is the smallest one—they would like their lawyers’ decision-making to be considerate of them and their personal concerns. No wonder that clients repeatedly complain about their lawyers failing to interact with them as human beings and failing to understand their needs beyond the strictest legal solution to the situation presented. We need to work on our listening and empathy skills—they can be learned.

3. Collaborating

Collaborating not just dictating. We used to be “in charge” and able to dictate a strategy or course of action by dint of our superior knowledge or experience as lawyers. But these days, the workaday world is too complex for any one of us to have a corner on all the salient information that will allow us to command a solution. Instead, lawyer-leaders must engage a team in working together. As succinctly stated in a fascinating book by Linda A. Hill and other authors, Collective Genius: the Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, “Leaders of innovation create organizations where people are willing and able to do the work of innovation, where everyone has the opportunity to contribute his or her slice of genius to the collective genius of the whole.” Figure out the “slice of genius” that each person in your organization brings and inspire them to collaborate with others to a new and different whole. In this way, the total will be way more than a sum of the parts—and the individuals in your organization will feel not only heard but part of a new and rewarding venture.

Collaboration requires listening and empathy. These are not soft skills that should be relegated to the bottom shelf. Clients, like most people in our work and home environments, want to be listened to with empathy. The vastness of information out there and the complexity of our clients’ needs call us to hone these skills in order to achieve success. Listening, empathizing and collaborating will allow better service to our clients and a more rewarding work environment for all lawyers.

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

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