Virtual Office NYC lawyer, Vivian Sobers discusses how practicing empathy with clients benefits her practice.
I was speaking with a non-lawyer friend about his general perception of lawyers (truthfully, I was peppering him with questions to do some informal research for this article). His answer:
“Greedy, cynical, humorless. Soulless.”
I was a little surprised, since this is my friend. Who knows I’m an attorney. And, while perhaps a little cynical, I certainly don’t believe the other three characteristics describe me.
So I asked him what made him arrive at this conclusion and whether he thought of me this way.
As to the latter, we concurred about the cynical part. Being a California native, he attributed my cynicism to just being “a New York thing.” But he agreed the other traits didn’t apply. Whew.
He witnessed the attorney being condescending to his family. “It felt like the attorney constantly made it clear that he was better than us,” said my friend.
He further explained that the negative things he sees about lawyers in the media has been consistent with his personal experience. “It just seemed like art imitating life,” he said.
This made me a little sad. I love this profession. And the two things I love most about it is being able to help my clients navigate a complicated legal system, and the bonds I make with them throughout the process.
We are a profession that is continually losing market share to computer based legal services and non-lawyer document factories. Client trust, solid relationships — all a byproduct of having empathy for our clients during the most difficult and stressful times in their lives — may be the only thing that keeps us relevant.
The benefits of practicing empathy in my solo law practice.
I find that I develop a strong level of trust very fast. This allows clients to be more open with me, which certainly avoids any surprises during critical times in a case.
But it also helps me advise clients and facilitate cases more efficiently, particularly when there is a lot of emotion involved. For example, when they are deciding on a settlement offer.
As a litigation attorney, I find that client emotions affect almost every aspect of a case. Managing those emotions can mean the difference between success or failure.
By not fully understanding (or addressing) a client’s emotional needs, I feel that attorneys waste more time than they should. They miss out on valuable information that can expedite the decision making process throughout the entire representation.
Perhaps the biggest benefit is the enduring rapport. Building trust is a process, and once a client feels comfortable, more often than not when they have any new legal matter, they come to me first. The repeat business from existing clients has had an incredible stabilizing effect on my law practice.
You don’t have to be an innately empathic person to practice empathy in a law practice.
Empathy happens to come easy for me, both personally and professionally. That’s just who I am. Nine times out of ten, I can accurately gauge how a client is feeling about a situation.
But I don’t think that you need to be an innately empathetic person to successfully practice empathy with clients. It’s something that you can get better at the longer you practice.
For example, when I mentioned that I was writing an article about practicing empathy to a colleague in the NYC shared law office space where I keep my office, he shared that wife often teases him that he has no sense of empathy.
This may be true at home, but professionally, this attorney is incredible at developing long-term bonds with clients. He totally gets his clients, their fears, emotions, successes and failures, and is able to build relationships that seem to go far beyond a mere attorney-client relationship.
You can’t do that without practicing empathy well.
Using empathy in a professional context shouldn’t be a challenge.
I think it’s easier to have empathy in a professional context. Attorney-client relationships will always be more arms length than those of a personal nature.
But what are we really talking about here? Engaging in active listening with your clients, and then demonstrating to them that you understood what you heard?
I asked my California friend how he would have felt if his family’s attorney took this approach with him. He agreed that it would have made a big difference.
But what about situations where you have to give your clients bad news, or advise them to take a strategy that they don’t necessarily agree with, but is the best solution for them (the more difficult part of our practice)?
I asked my friend.
Knowing where to draw the line.
By definition, being empathic means understanding and sharing the feelings of others. But we are a profession charged with the responsibility of being our clients’ non-emotional advocates.
Knowing where to draw the line, especially with respect to the “sharing” part of empathy practice, is critical.
This can be tricky at times, especially for people like me who are more naturally empathetic. Without boundaries, a client’s emotions can become overwhelming.
I try to “stand in the shoes” of my clients to attempt to understand the emotional context of their situation. I try to convey to them that I understand their feelings and that I am sympathetic them.
However, I try very hard to not become emotionally vested in their situation, beyond wanting to obtain the best outcome for them given the context of their situation.
Finding the right balance.
Just like everything else in the practice of law, you have to find the right balance when exercising empathy. Depending on your predisposition for it, that will be different for everyone.
But when done well, my experience has been that practicing empathy with clients makes solo practice easier, and much more fulfilling.
Do you practice empathy as part of your practice? Leave your comments below and tell us your thoughts.
Finding a balance with your clients takes practice.
Vivian Sobers is a commercial litigator pursuing a solo law practice right out of law school. She is a client in Law Firm Suites’ Virtual Office Program. Vivian’s weekly blog series “Young, Hungry and Committed” documents the trials and tribulations of a young attorney navigating her way through the challenging world of self-employed legal practice.