Lots of talk these days for the need for lawyers to be emphatic. To work on practicing empathy. To be more emphatic toward others. Usually, this is couched in terms of being able to better serve and relate to clients, and their needs and concerns, all of which is true enough. But there’s another more practical side to empathy for lawyers that’s also pretty valuable.
I stumbled upon this recently when a good friend said to me, “not sure how you were so successful as a lawyer, you’re such a nice guy.” (She was a little less direct than that, but I got the thrust). Ignoring for the moment that the idea that being a good/successful lawyer requires you to be an asshole, her comment did get me thinking about why I was so successful for so long while still being thought of as a reasonably nice person (well, at least by most).
After thinking about it, I decided that one reason I succeeded was that I was pretty adept at putting myself in other people’s shoes. Not just clients, but my adversaries and their clients as well. And this didn’t always mean pleasant, touchy-feely conclusions. It often meant seeing the more base and unpleasant motivations like greed, pride, underhandedness. The more I thought about my career and the careers of other successful lawyers, the more I have come to see that the ability to understand these motivations and to be able to manipulate them is a pretty critical skill for a lawyer.
This kind of empathy is called cognitive empathy. But it has a dark side which I believe was what my friend was getting at. Cognitive empathy ultimately leads you to always look for and expect the worst in people. It frankly turns you by and large into a scheming asshole which many lawyers are. And If you never think anyone is acting out of some positive emotion, you miss an opportunity to leverage that emotion and motivation to get to a result which may be in your client’s best interest.
But when I think about the really good lawyers-particularly trial lawyers- I know, I can see they also had a good dose of emotional empathy as well
But when I think about the really good lawyers-particularly trial lawyers- I know, I can see they also had a good dose of emotional empathy as well. Emotional empathy means you can actually feel what others are feeling and then manipulate those feelings to a persuasive advantage. This is a particularly useful skill to have if you are arguing to a jury, for example. Cognitive empathy always needs to be balanced by emotional understanding and vice versa.
But having either or both of these does not necessarily make you a good person apart from being a lawyer. It’s one thing to feel what others are feeling or thinking, it’s another thing to manipulate those feelings and thoughts to your advantage. I think this is why lawyers, in general, have a bad rep: most people know instinctively when their feelings and emotions are being used against them.
Which brings me I suppose to the last group of lawyers: the truly great ones. I think I have known one or maybe two.
Which brings me I suppose to the last group of lawyers: the truly great ones. I think I have known one or maybe two. These lawyers not only know how to use empathy, they are emphatic and never use that skill in a classic manipulative way. They do have the ability to actually feel and experience the emotions and as a result, better perceive the thoughts of others. As a result, they come across not as manipulative assholes but as genuine and honest people. Which is, of course precisely what they are.