In the fields of leadership and professional development, the terms emotional intelligence (EI) and empathy have the buzzwords’ status, reflecting how praised and sought-after those skills have become. Most of us, whether professionally or personally, simply want to deal with “human” people. Yet surprisingly, being truly emotionally intelligent and empathic is much easier said than done and so quite rare.

It seems especially stark in regard to lawyers who are infamously and consistently perceived as cold, robotic, self-centred and manipulative. That’s on the opposite of empathic or emotionally intelligent. For example, the American public’s opinion on attorneys places them almost at the bottom of the reputed institutions in American society. The 2002 ABA’s Report titled Public Perceptions of Lawyers: Consumer Research Findings reads:

Cold lawyers, too, get cold sometimes (source:

Lawyers have a reputation for winning at all costs, and for being driven by profit and self-interest, rather than client interest. [lawyers] are believed to manipulate both the system and the truth…. Lawyers’ tactics are said to border on the unethical, and even illegal. This idea does not just come from the media. Personal experiences bear it out.

Personality profile of a “typical lawyer”, emerging from psychological analyses, tends to be ‘more achievement-oriented, more aggressive, and more competitive than other professionals and people in general’. This includes winning at work, as well as in interpersonal situations.

Undoubtedly, this cold and aggressive lawyer needs to go away – to be replaced by an emotionally attuned professional.


Why? For a variety of reasons, such as:


  • Responding to clients’ needs. 

Law is still largely a “people’s profession” and people universally look for being listened to and understood. For clients, the “how my lawyer makes me feel” factor has gained importance. Especially when the choice is between equally good and similarly priced legal service provision, the specific client experience anchored in empathy and EI can become a differentiating feature.


  • Improving performance.

Emotionally intelligent practices lead to better outcomes. Outwardly, as measured by client acquisition, satisfaction and retention. Inwardly, with greater employees’ satisfaction and achievements, which in turn are, based on enhanced staff collaboration and more effective leadership. In an increasingly tech-enabled and automated legal sector, EI creates an added value. It can even become a unique selling point, making your practice more competitive and successful. Empathy can also turn you into a better marketer in reaching prospective clients.


  • Paying financial dividends.

Improved performance is mirrored in higher financial dividends, on a company and individual level. Research of a large consulting practice demonstrated that partners who scored higher in EI-related competencies also achieved improved revenue and gross margin. Psychology studies are littered with examples of where EI has shown tangible business benefits.


  • Being more effective as a lawyer.

Giving legal advice on frequently the most important aspects of a client’s life or with far-reaching business consequences is, by its nature, emotional. Unsurprisingly, many legal tasks, for their accomplishment, require proficiency in social skills, such as communication or collaboration. Social skills are a part of EI. It becomes especially important in adversarial situations.


  • Becoming a leader.

Emotional intelligence is crucial for those who are in charge of projects and people. When things get tough, emotions run high. So, it becomes especially important at times of big changes, like the cultural and digital transformation (currently sweeping the legal industry) or during a crisis (like the current COVID-19 situation).


  • Being healthier and happier.

Caring, open and understanding teams and leaders result in more staff satisfaction (on a team and individual level). Attrition is lower, just like the workplace’ healthcare costs. People are getting on with each other more easily and experience less stress or deal with it better. All this makes emotionally intelligent professionals healthier physically and mentally.


In a nutshell, investment in developing emotional intelligence yields many beneficial results – for yourself and your environment. 


If you haven’t yet started, roll up your sleeves. This post is a great first step towards becoming an emotionally attuned legal professional.


We’re walking you through the basics of emotional intelligence and empathy in particular by:


Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognise, understand, regulate and engage with your own and others’ emotions.


EI is a complex phenomenon, frequently broken into multiple components, such as:

  • Self-awareness – recognising and describing what you’re feeling at the moment and what underpins your actions [we have a separate blog post on this skill, click here to read more];
  • Self-regulation (self-management) – using the awareness of your emotions and what underpins them to appropriately manage your response to situations;
  • Empathy and social awareness – understanding the perspectives of other people, including their motivations, emotions and behaviours;
  • Motivation – the reason for acting a certain way; the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours;
  • Social skills and relationship management – applying appropriate techniques, especially communication, to successfully manage relationships with others.

Luckily, most of these components are skills from the spectrum of personal and relationship competence, and so, they can be learnt and improved.


Just like IQ (Intelligence Quotient) measures one’s intelligence, EQ is a measurement of emotional intelligence. After Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who introduced and popularised the concept of EI,  many believe that EQ is a better indicator of professional success than IQ. As the saying goes: “IQ gets you through school, but EQ gets you through life”.

And yet, numerous studies show lawyers scoring high in intelligence (IQ) yet way below average in emotional intelligence (EQ). As Ronda Muir, the author of Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence, noticed ‘lawyers often feel that they have to choose between emotion and reason.’ In reality, EQ supports IQ and vice versa.


These “low EQ” scores are anchored in the frequent lack of empathy – the foundation of EQ and core of EI – amongst lawyers.  To quote Mark Bear in HuffPost:

Those who tend to be attracted to law school in the first place tend to be logical thinkers (rule oriented) and have low EQ levels. Moreover, the research indicates that the training students receive in law school also causes an “erosion of empathy.” Furthermore, the more empathic students tend to drop out of law school at a much higher rate. Moreover, “lawyers with ‘higher levels of resilience, empathy, initiative and sociability’ are more likely to leave law practice than those with lower levels of those traits.” 

Yet, empathy is not a given or constant. Some people have a greater genetic predisposition for being empathic and some have developed empathy as an environmental factor, especially in childhood. Whatever your current level of empathy, with motivation and efforts everyone can improve their capacity and become truly empathic. Even lawyers!



So, what does empathy really mean and how to become empathic?



Sympathy vs empathy by Grammarly

To start, let’s clarify one common mistake: empathy is not to be confused with sympathy.

Empathy doesn’t necessarily involve showing any softness, warmth or liking somebody or something. Hence, empathic/empathetic is not synonymous with sympathetic – showing concern for another person who is experiencing something bad. Being empathic – having and displaying empathy – goes further.



Empathy means


(i) exercising an analytical interest in discovering the other person’s core beliefs and values; and


(ii) genuinely understanding what the other person is feeling.

(according to E. & L. Alison, per Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People)


If you are working in a corporate environment it is likely that you have already experienced some internal EI-awareness training and development. This may come as part of the client relationship or wellbeing tools, diversity and inclusion or leadership and people management issues. In addition, your EQ/EI development can be supported by coaching and mentoring. At the most basic, individual, level – for both professional and personal development – everyone can take some steps to build their emotional acumen.

Given that we have singled out empathy as the core of EI (plus, we treat other EI components in their own dedicated posts), let’s focus on practical advice on how to develop and improve your empathy.

Psychologists Emily and Laurence Alison in Rapport, propose the following steps to develop and improve your empathy:


Turn off the auto-pilot and connect with your thoughts and feelings. Pause, analyse and name what you’re thinking and feeling when something happens. Try establishing why you feel this way, what underpins your state (for example, because your values are contested).


Empathy is about understanding, not competing. Talking about how you felt when something similar happened to you is not the most empathic. Instead, imagine how you might feel if something that happened to the other person would happen to you. Even if you get it wrong your efforts will go a long way.


Put yourself in another person’s head. Try interpreting their reactions and position through their – the other person’s – values, beliefs, experiences. Filter through their circumstances.

Although frequently we may be wrong with all this imagining, empathy is about the efforts, about trying. Adopting another person’s perspective first requires showing a genuine interest and then leads to acknowledging how they feel. That’s before you start explaining your own position or opinion. It is an invitation to share, not force your stance on anybody. Try providing as much choice and autonomy as possible and never jump into conclusions.

To practice try this challenge: listen to someone whose views on a topic are far from yours and try to display patience and curiosity. Even when you do not like or agree with what you’re hearing. Look for non-verbal cues,  like body language or facial expressions, beyond what and how is being said. It will become easier in time.


On top of empathy, do not forget about the broader picture of displaying EI. Jacob Morgan from the Future of Work, suggests following these rules for effective leadership at the times of change:

1. HONESTY. Be authentic.

2. EMPATHY. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

3. CALMNESS. Don’t make impulsive decisions.

4. SELF-AWARENESS. Stay in tune with your own emotions.

5. COMMUNICATION. Talk to people.

Remember that empathy and EI, like most social skills, develop by interaction with others. In practice. To grow and improve you have to identify your weaker points and challenge yourself by venturing out of your comfort zone.

For a more law-specific application of EI/empathy to your work you may take a look at this mini-guide on approaching construction disputes empathically, from Denton’s Tracey Summerell and Esther McDermott.



Both the practice of law and the business of law go beyond dealing with intellectual and business concepts of law. A lot of legal work has a significant emotional impact on all involved. Law includes working with people (as clients, collaborators, colleagues) and for people. Emotional intelligence and foremost empathy are necessary for better interactions, creating greater value, being more effective and successful. It is mandatory for all current and aspiring leaders.

If you still need a push to invest in developing your EQ, just like you expand your legal expertise, listen to the great Theodore Roosevelt:

Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Empathy and emotional intelligence do exactly that.


Looking forward to comments and questions – get in touch! Thank you for reading ?



P.S. The book quoted in this post – Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People by e. & L. Alison – is highly recommended and worth reading in its entirety.



This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire. To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page



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