Lawyers, like anyone else, can fall victim to stereotypes. Somewhere along the way, you might buy into the myth that a good lawyer must be a “shark,” an “attack dog,” or “tough as nails.”
Yet you may wonder, “Is that what clients really want?”
“Is that what it takes to win cases?”
“How does that mentality affect my well-being day after day?”
“Does that kind of thinking actually get me the best result for my client?”
Here is the truth: we are not “Great Whites” or “vicious dogs,” and we certainly are not inanimate robots made of steel. Underneath the suits and the polished performances, we are real people with big goals, beating hearts, who are also disproportionately prone to stress and burnout.
In today’s legal industry, technical skills are no longer enough. You must have strong emotional intelligence (EQ) as well as emotional regulation to build a sustainable practice, preserve your well-being, and enjoy life. Let’s look at what emotional intelligence and emotional regulation are, why they are so critically important to the practice of law, and how to implement them in your daily life.
What are EQ and Emotional Regulation?
In short, EQ is the ability to recognize and navigate emotional information. As a legal professional, you must not only manage your emotions, but also interact with others judiciously and with empathy. EQ is what helps you foster relationships, handle challenges, and advance your career.
Emotional regulation is an integral part of EQ. It is the ability to pause between an intense feeling and a reaction. Armed with the power of that pause, you can choose your reaction instead of falling victim to it.
The terms EQ and emotional regulation might send some attorneys skidding right out of the room. Many of us are more comfortable with facts and figures than feelings.
However, as a lawyer, you counsel clients in high-stress situations and help them work through intense feelings. Those messy emotions do not impede your work; they are the work. There are no neat, tidy boxes for separating feelings and the job. To excel at one, you must embrace the other.
In today’s competitive legal landscape, the “soft skills” of EQ and emotional regulation are even more important than the legal maneuvers you have worked on for years. And ironically, soft skills can be harder to master.
There is good news, though. Lawyers learn quickly, and you can boost your EQ and emotional regulation with the same determination that got you through torts in law school. With knowledge, understanding, and practice (along with a dose of humility as you do your best, fumble a bit, learn, and try again), EQ is definitely a skill you can improve every day.
Four Dimensions of Emotional Intelligence
Here are the distinct aspects to emotional intelligence:
1. Self-awareness: Counselor, know thyself! Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, name them, and choose how to handle them in constructive ways.
2. Self-regulation: Go beyond awareness and manage your emotions by adapting to change, showing restraint over impulses, and following through on commitments.
3. Social awareness: This component of EQ revolves around empathy – for others and yourself. As an attorney, you must be able to pick up on emotional cues, understand group power dynamics, and read between the lines to discover what is not being said.
4. Relationship management: Sharks are not great at relationships; good attorneys are. Building and maintaining connections is one of the most critical skills for business development, client communication, and conflict resolution.
Those Who Can Regulate Reap the Rewards
While we should not play favorites with the four facets of EQ, there is one that has become the go-to skill in the daily practice of law: emotional regulation.
Remember, emotional regulation is that all-important pause between a feeling and a reaction. Often, it is the split-second moment you use to choose what to say or do next. (You know people who skip right over the pause, right? It doesn’t usually end well.)
The ability to regulate emotion is what helps you stay in control of your reactions instead of falling victim to intense feelings like shock or rage (this is called “emotional dysregulation”).
Is regulation easy? Not always, but it is essential to your success. Emotional regulation can save you from lashing out or speaking before thinking – reckless moments that can tank a case or even a career. It also makes you a better leader, mentor, and collaborator. Research shows that it is EQ – not IQ – that has the biggest impact on your ability to successfully work in a team.
In emotionally intense situations, sometimes our instincts tell us to fight dirty or storm out of the room simply because it would feel so good in the moment. But it is a cheap rush – and it can damage our reputations, relationships, and even outcomes. Some of the symptoms of frequent emotional dysregulation include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, extreme perfectionism, high levels of shame, and angry outbursts.
The Crushing Well-Being Costs of Emotional Dysregulation
Many lawyers drift into destructive habits to cope with the pressures of the occupation. In 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being agreed that “the legal profession is already struggling.” In the landmark report entitled “The Path To Lawyer Well-Being”, the task force discussed a study that revealed disturbing statistics about lawyers:
- 21–36% are problem drinkers.
- 28% experience depression.
- 19% struggle with anxiety.
Other research shows that:
- Lawyers exhibit excess alcohol consumption twice as frequently as others with advanced professional degrees.
- Burnout and a decline in well-being affect nearly 50% of lawyers.
- Substance abuse and mental health concerns underpin up to 70% of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims.
EQ can help you avoid these common pitfalls and build a sustainable practice that aligns with your well-being goals.
Suit Up with Emotional Armor
Most law schools do not teach EQ and the importance of emotional regulation, so lawyers must be proactive in learning and practicing these practice-essential skills. Not only is it best for you professionally, but it’s also in the best interest of your personal well-being.
Here are five ways to put EQ and emotional regulation into action, especially when tensions are running high:
Pay attention to your feelings. Being able to name your emotions – a skill called “emotional granularity” – can empower you to regulate them.
Breathe through your feelings. Deep breathing is not just a “yoga thing.” It has been scientifically proven to help shift the brain out of “fight or flight” mode and back into higher-level thinking, responding, and problem-solving.
See the whole forest, not just the trees. When you adjust your perspective wider and higher, it’s easier for you to see a situation clearly and accurately. The situation that has you worked up is likely just a piece of a larger whole, and there could be long-term costs to your emotional outburst or snap decision.
Be kind to yourself when you need it most. Adopt the voice of a trusted friend or mentor during a challenging situation. Sometimes we layer on self-judgment during challenging situations, which only makes things worse.
Embrace community. There is a reason why people say there is “strength in numbers.” We all need people in our corner. When you lean on people you trust, they can put things in perspective, give you a reason to laugh or an opportunity to vent, and offer new ideas and insights.
IQ + EQ = Success and Well-Being in the Practice of Law
As a lawyer, you have worked so hard to reach this point in your career. Law school may have given you the technical skills to compete, but most schools do not emphasize the emotional intelligence and regulation resources every attorney needs to excel in an ever-evolving legal landscape.
EQ may sound instinctive, but it’s a specific skillset, and lacking these skills can keep you from achieving your full potential – despite your talents in other areas. Strong emotional regulation can be the critical skill that propels forward while improving your well-being. Plus, the immense value of these emotional assets can extend to each area of your life – including the office, courtroom, family, and community.
About the Author
Kendra Brodin is founder and CEO of EsquireWell, a coaching service on well-being for attorneys, and is the vice chair of the ABA Law Practice Division Well-Being Committee, and a member of the ABA Well-Being Pledge Committee.