Virtual Office NYC Lawyer, Vivian Sobers: Practicing Empathy With Clients Without Crossing the Line

By Law Firm Suites - March 20, 2015
Virtual Office NYC Lawyer, Vivian Sobers: Practicing Empathy With Clients Without Crossing the Line

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.

nyc virtual officeAs to the former question, he explained that while growing up in Central California, a family member was badly injured and she hired a personal injury attorney who was well-known in their community.

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.

Virtual Office NYCFor my solo practice, practicing empathy has yielded significant benefits.

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.

Virtual Office NYC When it comes to having empathy, some people have greater capacity than others.

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.

Virtual Office NYCHis response was that they would have been more open to listening to their attorneys’ advice, even if they didn’t initially agree with it, and not walk away with bad feelings about the lawyer.

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.

Learn more tips from our eBook: “Virtual Lawyers Dish: Strategies For Success.”Virtual lawyers dish strategies for success

virtual office nyc
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.

About Law Firm Suites

Law Firm Suites is the leading NYC shared office space for solo attorneys and small law firms. At Law Firm Suites, attorneys get headache free sublet office space, virtual office rentals and litigation hotel services. Law Firm Suites has two locations in Manhattan, one in White Plains NY, and one in Annapolis MD. Law Firm Suites' community of self-employed lawyers are eager to help colleagues succeed, and routinely exchange over $2.5 million in legal business every year in each LFS business center. Connect with Law Firm Suites on Twitter and .

One thought on “Virtual Office NYC Lawyer, Vivian Sobers: Practicing Empathy With Clients Without Crossing the Line

  1. I totally agree, Vivian, empathy is great skill that is learnable to build trust. It is also measurable. As you mentioned, emotions are messages and we can learn to understand our own and other’s emotions. This is one of the competencies of being emotionally intelligent.

    I caution though that being sympathetic is not same as being empathetic. It is interesting to ask if the level of dignity is same between two people when there is empathetic communication versus sympathetic communication?

    Also, according to Simon Baron Cohen, empathy involves considering others as human and not object. Although there is “normal” (bell curve) empathy, there can be too much empathy, as well as lack of empathy. Neither part of the two extremes is healthy. So you are right that everybody as well as lawyers need to balance. Watch Simon’s talk: . He also has a great book, “Science of evil: on empathy and the origins of cruelty.”

    According to Sarat & Felstiner (Divorce Lawyers and their clients: Power meaning in the legal process) lawyers and clients each operate and draw power and meaning from two different paradigms–lawyers from legal and clients from social. Empathy can be a powerful skills to blur the boundary.

    Hope to have more discussions regarding this topic that I find fascinating.

    Thanks for writing these interesting blogs.

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