I Also Want to be an Empathetic Lawyer!
Kate survived three experiences of family violence. The first abusive man in her life was her father, who was both a victim and a perpetrator of family violence. He taught her to tolerate abuse and pander to controlling boyfriends. The second abusive man was her husband, another victim-perpetrator. He won her heart then stole her confidence, all of their assets, and traumatised their child. The third abuser was her de–facto partner whom she believed to be the love of her life. When she ended their seven-year relationship, he retaliated by trying to destroy every aspect of her life.
I cannot deny that every time I read or hear a testimony of domestic violence I am filled with various emotions. Among them are sadness and indignation. I imagine everything that the victim has had to endure under the control of her aggressor and how painfully that story often does not have a survivor. As a Law graduate, I remember that one of my professors of Family Law once said…
“A lawyer who is inflexible and rigidly pleads for the patrimonial situation of the client without taking into account his or her emotional or relational situation will not have successfully managed the file.”
He noted that the lawyer must build the entire client experience by putting themselves in client’s place. In this way, the attorney and their firm can serve a client in a way that anticipates concerns and makes the client’s experience as seamless as possible.
My professor’s statement makes me think about the concept of empathy and the social perception of lawyers. Honestly, if someone asked me what I perceive empathy to be, I would say that empathy is knowing how to listen to and understand the emotions, feelings or thoughts that another person expresses to us, with an open mind, leaving aside our prejudices, stereotypes and own solutions. It is true that suffering is subjective; that is, it is something based on a person’s own feelings. We all have preconceived ideas about the world, and when we’re required to look at an issue from someone else’s point of view it can be difficult.
Nevertheless, we still can make an effort to understand the hardships of another based on our own hardships and be willing to walk with the other. To accompany the individual, shoulder to shoulder, in the difficult situation they are going through.
Unfortunately, it is common among society to suppose that a legal professional puts their own interests before that of their client, leaving aside ethics, superimposing the economic. On top of this is the perception that a lawyer acts in a position of hierarchy, generating a disparity that only causes distance, and where the injured party is always the client.
I cannot deny that these assumptions or perceptions are repeatedly true, and for a long time it has been believed that the idea of empathising with the client and their cause could cloud rational thinking and decision-making in lawyers. However, from my point of view, empathising with a client and attending to their emotions is not something that clouds one’s thinking or only serves on a ‘human’ level. On the contrary, it nurtures the solicitor and assists them in the most effective and ethical delivery of the profession.
In fact, the benefits of being empathetic with the client are numerous…
On the one hand, clients feel understood.
This is advantageous for two reasons. Firstly, it means the lawyer will be completely open and receptive to what the client is saying. Taking in every detail is, obviously, beneficial when it comes to handling the facts of the case. Secondly, as the client notices that they are being heard and understood without being interrupted or judged, their trust in their lawyer will build as they see the story being represented from their perspective.
Additionally, empathy helps ensure clients’ needs are met.
It allows a lawyer to understand individuals’ mood and tone better and ensures they can respond more effectively. For example, an empathetic manager can tailor their communications to staff thus, much in the same way, an empathetic lawyer will be able to tailor their communication to a client. Some clients like to be told news directly, and some clients might need a gentler approach. Using the right tone at the right time can mean a lot to a client, and this builds that all-important trust.
Finally, being empathetic the right way makes the speaker feel prioritised.
By focusing wholly on the speaker, not judging, and acknowledging their message, a lawyer ensures that clients feel when their cases are being dealt with, that they are a person receiving individual attention, not just another ticket being processed by a machine. These clients feel they are receiving the full attention of their lawyer, and years of legal education and experience are being applied personally in their case. They feel heard, valued, and once again, their trust in their lawyer grows.
In this way, if I return to the case of Kate that I mentioned at the beginning, I would offer her my support, much like her solicitor. I would help her to know her rights and I would acknowledge her fears and her situation without judging. Likewise, I would advise her on the steps to follow based on open communication and an active channel of exchanging ideas, as it is important that the professional actions I take align with the objectives that Kate wants to achieve.
Frankly, I believe that the more the legal community is educated in values, respect, tolerance and solidarity, the more empathetic behaviour will be promoted and contribute significantly to the reduction of violence. Let us not forget the famous phrase noted by the much loved and remembered Mahatma Gandhi…
“Three-quarters of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world would end if people stepped into the shoes of their adversaries and understood their point of view.”
SAFE STEPS. Katie’s story. Available in: https://www.safesteps.org.au/survivor-stories/katies-story/
QUINTANAR., Aída. El poder de la empatía. Available in: https://institutodia.mx/el-poder-de-la-empatia/
DREYER., Chris. The Importance of Empathy in Law Firms. Available in: https://rankings.io/importance-of-empathyin-law-firms/