Emotional Intelligence and Lawyers—an Old New Frontier

The call was for articles about “the new and the next in legal”—what are the new frontiers in law going to be? While my mind initially raced with thoughts of AI, cybersecurity, processes, bitcoin, privacy… I then paused. And I thought of what I was working on at that very moment. Emotional Intelligence. We were about to welcome our next cohort into the Law Practice Program (LPP) and I was preparing to speak before a large group of future lawyers about emotions. Imagine! And in response to Dan Lear’s request for proposals, I suggested that this concept was an “Old New Frontier” for lawyers, something around for a while, but that we are really just beginning to appreciate how much future (and current) lawyers will need it to succeed.

Why care about emotions, and being intelligent about them? Lawyers are known to be focused on and praised for their logic and analytical skills, both of which are extremely important in solving the many problems thrust upon them by all sorts of clients. But here’s the catch. Everything a lawyer does is in furtherance of a client’s interests. A client. A real human being. And to help reach a solution to that client’s dilemma or need, lawyers must engage with many other human beings: colleagues; experts in other industries or professions; judges; mediators; supervisors; support team members; the local barista who supplies the coffee to keep them going, and so many others. At the same time, they are juggling their own issues, dreams, and challenges—personal and professional.

At its core, as Daniel Goleman outlined in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability for each of us to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions as well as the ability to recognize, understand, manage and influence the emotions of others. In the fast-paced and often stressful legal profession, where relationships are core, this is important. Building our EI allows us to open up areas of creativity and strength needed to resolve the problems and challenges we confront. As we move forward in an increasingly complex, fast-changing world with greater uncertainties and new frontiers opening up, understanding and managing emotions (our own and that of others) becomes even more relevant. Emotions lead to behavior, and these behaviors impact our relationships with others, and those relationships affect results. Just take a look at our current news and you might have a sense of this playing out all around us.

Emotions can be messy and uncomfortable, but they are also always present. Developing awareness of them, as well as a broader appropriate and constructive language to discuss, manage and engage with emotions, is critical to the decisions we make every day—from the small ones to the larger ones. An example comes to mind from an initial client meeting exercise I once assessed. An elderly client walked into the office and did not say much. To me, the client appeared nervous and perhaps overwhelmed with having to be at a legal appointment. The future lawyer, perhaps worried about his or her own performance and feeling a need to impress this client to land the retainer, and perhaps feeling pressed for time (the appointment with the client was only for 30 minutes), launched almost immediately into a very competent, but direct, recitation of the legal issues and a possible resolution. High points for analytical skills, indeed. But if the lawyer truly looked at the client, the negative impact this was having would have been clear. The client finally interjected, frustrated, and reminded the lawyer that she, too, was in the room, and having felt anxious about coming to the appointment in the first place, was now even more anxious given how the meeting started. A pause by all. A breath. And the realization by the future lawyer that the client is a human being, with her own emotions, that must be taken into account. With that, the meeting restarted with an entirely different approach and a better result.

Still think that EQ is too soft? Or that you either have “it” or you don’t? Neuroscience supports the concept that emotions start in our brains. A few years ago I enrolled in an online course through Coursera, Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence, in which Case Western Reserve University Professor Richard Boyatzis walked us through the science behind resonant leadership, and introduced me to such topics as emotional contagion and the physiological reasons why strategies for renewal after stressful events are so critical. As Amy Brann summarizes in her 2016 article, The Neuroscience of Emotional Intelligence, while there are instinctive responses to emotions leading to certain behaviors, other areas of our brain (from which we get reasoning and decision making) can help override these responses. More importantly, this is a skill that can be learned and developed over time; a skill that I strongly believe all future lawyers need to develop.

In Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, Dr. Larry Richard discussed persistent patterns and traits found among lawyers. Knowing these, and having the emotional intelligence about their impact, can help us develop and perform professionally. For example, lawyers average in the 90th percentile for skepticism (compared to the 50th percentile for the general public). Great in some transactional negotiations or litigation, but not necessarily as effective in circumstances where trust and collaboration are more effective. Another trait is urgency, where lawyers averaged in the 71st percentile, compared to the 50th for the general public. Again, admirable in circumstances that need results fast and moving matters forward; but this same trait may also cause tensions in critical relationships (think clients, supervisors or mentees), where the same behavior can appear like poor listening or lack of attention. A third trait was that of resilience, and here we see that lawyers averaged in the 30th percentile, compared to 50th for the general public. So while the world around us may think we are confident, lawyers may well be less open to feedback and more sensitive to mistakes or failure. Being aware is a tremendous first step.

Fellow Canadian and legal futurist Jordan Furlong also raised the importance of emotional intelligence in Ready for the future? Your survival kit survey results, with hope, that “lawyers are coming to appreciate not just the importance of communication and client service, but also how these methodologies need to be infused with virtues of attentiveness, sincerity, and personal connection.” In fact, Jordan integrated these findings in his 2016 report for the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) Legal Futures Initiative, Do Law Differently: Futures for Young Lawyers.

For current lawyers, as well as future lawyers, tools and strategies can help manage your own and others’ emotions:

  • Start with an awareness of, and an openness to, discussing emotions.
  • Take time to reflect on what is happening in a situation and determine next steps.
  • Practice mindfulness (in whatever way works best for you) to be more grounded in the present, not what was or what might be.
  • Actively seek out feedback and listen carefully to it.
  • Develop practices of gratitude and optimism.
  • Reflect on your strengths regularly, and apply them as you consider and pursue your goals, including overcoming obstacles.

Given how fundamental emotional intelligence is to what lawyers do, I am still surprised at how little this core competency is discussed in law schools or local bar associations. But I’m optimistic. Having introduced EI into the LPP, and ensuring it be a mandatory part of Ryerson’s new law school, I’m on a bit of a mission to see that change. We cannot just expect lawyers and law students to “get” EI. Rather, we need to bring it clearly in focus and help future lawyers develop and cultivate this core competency—an “Old New Frontier.”

About the Author

Gina Alexandris is the senior program director for the Ryerson Law Practice Program in Toronto, Canada. Contact her on Twitter @GinaAlexandris.

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