Empathy and social skills: Two keys to being a successful lawyer

Personality studies of lawyers tend to find low sociability as a predominant character trait, which is associated with limited empathy skills.

Author: Marisa Méndez, Director of Psycholawgy.es and Associate Professor at IE Law School.

Now that we have reviewed intrapersonal skills, it is time to take a closer look at the interpersonal components of emotional intelligence: empathy and social skills.

These two skills are most commonly found in law firm training programs, both in-company and as recommended during performance reviews to strengthen individual abilities. However, the results of this training are limited if they are not accompanied by individual introspective work.

Empathy and social skills | IE LawAhead

What is empathy?

When I ask my students to define the term, they give a semi-automatic response: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. But empathy as a construct is more complex than that.

Empathy can be divided into two parts. The first is my students’ answer: the ability to understand others. To do so, you have to put yourself in their place, with their circumstances and personal experiences. That way you can connect with what they could be thinking, feeling and doing (or not doing). This takes place at both the cognitive and emotional level, and is more comprehensive if you ask the other person to define their reality for you.

Then we have the second part, which is equally important. This involves leaving the other person and reflecting on the information you have obtained. Establishing boundaries and distancing yourself from others is very important, otherwise you might feel overwhelmed by someone else’s emotional state. In this case you may feel inclined to say “I’m too empathic,” which gives the impression that you perceive empathy as a burden. Therefore it is crucial that you differentiate your reality and emotional wellbeing from someone else’s.

What is the purpose of promoting empathy among lawyers? Empathy has as many applications as a lawyer has personal contacts: with clients, colleagues, partners, students, judges, etc. Imagine a lawyer during their first meeting with a client. Being able—and willing—to connect with the reality, motivations, hopes or fears of a client looking for a lawyer will enable a professional to access much more information than they could without empathy.

To do so, they might listen, ask open-ended questions, confirm information, ask for specific data, raise doubts or mention anything necessary to get an idea of the risks that the client anticipates and is willing to assume, as well as the benefits they’re looking for and how important each one is to them. Once the lawyer steps back and reflects on that, they can combine that information with their own experience in order to design the most appropriate strategy or strategies for the client.

But if empathy is so beneficial, then why isn’t it used more often? Personality studies of lawyers conducted with tools like Caliper Profile tend to find low sociability as a predominant character trait, which is associated with limited empathy skills. A common explanation is that this low sociability acts as a barrier between the professional and others, which allows the lawyer to suggest alternatives that are suitable in the long term but might be painful or difficult for the client in the short term.

An example could be suggesting an organized cessation of activities in the event of bankruptcy instead of holding out until the last minute. Although the latter might seem less painful in the short term, it will make it more difficult to resume operations in the long term. Nevertheless, I believe that if two-part empathy is employed, this barrier or shield will not be necessary.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

There are other obstacles to increasing empathy in the sector. A notable one is the huge sense of urgency that dominates the legal profession. It drives lawyers to work in a hurry; to look for effective solutions that might not be individualized; to interrupt others while they’re speaking; and to even interrupt themselves in order to take action. Furthermore, this way of acting and interacting with others can be seen in many partners when dealing with their teams.

What is the next step toward enhancing emotional intelligence? The next step involves developing social skills or effectively managing social relationships. This is the most visible dimension of empathy, as mastering it allows you to act and interact with others in a more satisfactory way.

The training plans that address these skills are so broad and deep that they range from verbal and nonverbal communication to assertive communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, etc. Social skills allow us to express ourselves and connect with others. Moreover, because they are based on empathy, they involve respect and consideration for everyone involved. These skills generate win-win situations.

I think Maya Angelou did an excellent job capturing the essence of these two skills when she said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In the context of complex professional and interpersonal relationships, today’s well-rounded lawyers need to master a broad variety of social skills—those specific to the legal profession as well as the ability to empathize. At IE University we strive to incorporate specific content in our law programs, such as modules to develop emotional abilities, that will enable our students to become empathic listeners and therefore more effective professionals.

Read the article in Spanish published by LexLatin

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Marisa MéndezMarisa Méndez is a psychologist and life coach. Currently she is Director of Psycholawgy.es and Associate Professor at IE Law School. She started her career as a lawyer and solicitor at Clifford Chance, London, and left legal practice to work as a consultant leading projects in Jordan, Brazil and Peru, where she came across the real meaning of resilience, as she worked with people in adverse situations. Years later, Marisa returned to Spain to combine her two passions: the study of psychology and emotional intelligence in the workplace and teaching at IE Law School.

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.