The 6 Emotional Skills All Lawyers Should Develop

The ability to identify emotions is a great ally for lawyers but few take advantage of it. Now is the time to incorporate it at the company and individual levels.

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

I am not going to keep the secret until the end of the article: My passionate personal conviction is that emotional intelligence is a wonderful ally in lawyers’ performance, but that they are not taking advantage of it. I believe it is now time to sign up and incorporate it both at the company and individual levels. Therefore, I invite you to learn more about the importance of emotional intelligence in this article.

In recent times, emotional intelligence has been carving out a space in our sector, especially in English-speaking jurisdictions. The American Bar Association has included it in the curriculum for its continuous training program, and multiple law schools also include emotional intelligence as a part of their bachelor’s and/or post-graduate degree programs. For many years, leading firms have been implementing internal training programs covering some of these skills for lawyers, but it is still very difficult to find a program that trains lawyers in all aspects of emotional intelligence and accompanies them over time.

Emotional intelligence is a concept that dates back to 1990. While we associate it with Daniel Goleman and his famous book, we cannot forget it was based on the work of Peter Salovey and John Mayer, the true forefathers of the concept. The basic premise is the idea that human intelligence must be expanded beyond cognitive and intellectual elements to incorporate the management of one’s own emotional world, and that of other people. Over the past two decades, many authors have explored this idea in depth without coming to a consensus around the concept or all of the skills it includes. However, they likely agree that someone with well-developed emotional intelligence will be capable of identifying, expressing, assigning meaning to, communicating, and adaptively managing their emotions.

What emotional skills can a lawyer develop and what advantages would this offer?

The model that I present below contains six emotional skills: self-awareness, emotional expression, self-regulation, empathy, social skills, and self-motivation. Each of these has its specificities and advantages.

Self-awareness: This skill is part of learning how to be a good lawyer and involves identifying the emotions you feel, naming them, and recognizing the message that they convey. To develop it, you have to learn how to pause, to become aware of how you feel and the reasons for that emotion. This is not easy, because today’s world lets you quickly escape the most unpleasant emotions through a cell phone screen. Lawyers who realize the importance of emotional intelligence are aware of their emotions, will be capable of receiving and learning from the constructive criticism of their co-workers and customers, and will not react with anger when they feel guilty, or with sadness and resignation when they feel disappointed. A lack of awareness of emotions is the cause of many communication conflicts within offices, which have such a negative effect on the corporate environment.

Emotional expression: If you can recognize the emotions you feel, the next step is to be consistent in expressing them, both verbally and physically. To do so, you have to keep in mind that more than 90% of communication is non-verbal. You convey messages through your body, gestures, and voice. Therefore, it will be very strange if your body does not go along with your words. Lawyers with this skill will convey more confidence and credibility, both in the eyes of their team and from the customer’s perspective.

A lack of awareness of emotions is the cause of many communication conflicts within offices, which have such a negative effect on the corporate environment. 

This skill is very important because, if you wish to learn how to be a good lawyer, there will be times when you are aware of what is happening yet it may not be appropriate or beneficial to express your emotions. In these situations, the skill of self-regulation will allow you to moderate yourself and also control and/or redirect your emotions. For lawyers, this will: allow them to express themselves calmly in difficult situations; and enable them to think about and anticipate the information being presented without denying it. And, of course, it will also allow them to celebrate their successes with happiness, not just relief.

Lawyers with a degree of empathy establish better connections and are more aware of needs

Empathy: This is one of the best-known skills for lawyers, and is usually defined as the ability to understand others and put yourself in their shoes. However, it is a skill not enough lawyers actually develop. An internal dialogue, being in a rush, and thinking ahead all interfere with empathy, hindering the lawyers’ ability to establish a connection with their team and customers, resulting in a loss of very valuable information. Lawyers with a degree of empathy establish better connections and are more aware of needs, concerns, and priorities. This allows them to make better decisions.

Social skills: Firms’ ‘skills for lawyers’ training programs tend to start by offering lawyers training in this skill, without covering those discussed above. As a result, such training fails to achieve the desired results. The ‘how to be a good lawyer’ tool kit of social skills includes assertive communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, and overcoming social anxiety. You can recognize lawyers who have worked on this skill because they build a team and work well with others.

Self-motivation: The last of these six skills is essential for any lawyer. It allows them to take advantage of their emotions to reach goals and to draw support from their strengths to overcome complicated situations and continue learning. Lawyers with this skill will be more resilient and optimistic when faced with adversity.

And what advantages will firms gain by having lawyers who understand the importance of emotional intelligence? They will see teamwork which is better and more productive; their professionals will not lack creativity and spontaneity; customers will feel more connected; and no more energy will be wasted on hiding defects, weaknesses, and useless conflicts. Over the long term, all of this will create a climate of increased trust, with all its attendant benefits.

We hope that, in the post-COVID era, law firms will include a 360° view of emotional intelligence in their training and professional development programs for their professionals.

Original version in Spanish here

Shows the picture of the author Marisa MendezMarisa Mendez is a psychologist and life coach. Currently she is Director of 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.