A Woman’s Edge in the Modern Legal World

Mary has just been told that her husband wants a divorce. They own a business, a house, and have two minor children. Mary can read about property division, custody, and parenting time all day long, but what she really wants to know is whether or not she’s going to be okay. She wants to know that someone she can trust will look out for her and help her navigate the most difficult time she has ever faced. She needs someone who can help her make critical life decisions.


The example of Mary is typical, and it exemplifies how the value proposition of lawyers has changed. Clients are no longer looking for information alone. Information is readily available via Google—and for little or no cost. Self-help resources have improved tremendously over the last decade, and online resources have grown to include legal documents, legal research, document preparers, or attorneys via an on-demand service like Avvo.

This experience, and the growing technology that will make artificial intelligence a reality in law, has lead some in the industry to wonder if the days of the traditional law firm are ending.

An Inside Game

However, there is no need for panic. People will still need and seek out local lawyers. The key to getting that business and sustaining it, however, is to understand what clients are seeking. It’s not information, it’s not legal resources, and it’s not the best technology. First and foremost, clients are seeking relief and reassurance. Clients want a trusted advisor to take their problem. They want someone who knows the system, the players, and the potential outcomes. Google will never be a trusted advisor.

Let’s go back to Mary: she wants to be heard and feel understood. She wants to know what other resources she needs. Who is the best mediator? Where can she find a great accountant? How do other cases like hers turn out? What works for other people in her situation and what disasters can she avoid? The answers to many of these questions start with listening carefully to the client and determining what they need from you, not just legally, but practically and emotionally.

Emotional Intelligence is the New Competitive Advantage

New research out of Harvard by Professor Amy Cuddy states that people make judgments and decisions about people they meet within seconds based on a person’s warmth and competence. People ask themselves two questions:

  • Can I trust this person?
  • Can I respect this person?

The questions are asked in that order. Trust and warmth is more important than respect and competence, although you must have both. This is where being a woman has its advantages. Cuddy’s research tells us that only after someone determines you are trustworthy will they evaluate your competence.

Women, as a whole and on average, have higher emotional intelligence with regards to emotional empathy. Emotional empathy fosters rapport and chemistry. Historically, women have dominated caretaking roles like nurses, teachers and psychologists because of their emotional empathy and intelligence. Technology has changed law by leveling the playing field among lawyers. Associates can access information and a network of experienced attorneys easier than ever thanks to technology. With information only a click away, emotional and empathetic intelligence is proving to be a competitive advantage in securing clients.

In my own firm, we saw a huge increase in client conversion and client satisfaction when we started focusing on empathetic listening. It was uncomfortable at first to admit that our soft skills and listening would be more important to clients than our work product as attorneys. But, after reviewing the conversion and satisfaction statistics, and looking carefully at what clients say in their reviews of lawyers, it was clear.


The Office Environment

The advantages of emotional intelligence in the current climate do not end there. The employment market has changed as well. Decreasing turnover and retaining and attracting talent are goals for virtually all law firms. The days of an associate staying with a firm, working long hours with little feedback, hoping to make partner are gone.

Particularly now that Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1997) represent the majority of associates in the office, the landscape has changed. Law firm attrition is around 20%. It is estimated to cost a firm between $200,000-$300,000 every time a lawyer leaves.

According to TriNet, a company that provides HR support, today’s employees want hands-on, empathetic management. They want access to the boss, and they want to feel valued as employees while being part of the long term mission and plan.

This has been borne out in my own office: associates want to know they are making personal progress and working toward a professional goal. They want to know they are making a difference in the world. I was also surprised to know that associates do not mind doing extra work to help the firm when they feel they are part of something bigger. As an example, paralegals and lawyers are investing in process management and a case law library within my small firm. A social committee and wellness committee has emerged from our last retreat. We now have a firm-wide yoga class every other Friday, and regular happy hours courtesy of my happy and engaged associates. We have a “professional development committee” teaching improv classes! I know it’s working, because recruiters have been approaching my young associates every three months with promises of something bigger and brighter for the last two years. Thankfully, they have no desire to leave.

Managing employees goes way beyond CLEs. Adding technical skill is the easy part, but managing an employee’s emotions is the more critical component in talent attraction and retention.

Google Can’t Deliver What You Can

As information is more readily available to the public, success will rule softer skills, empathy and personal connection. Both women and men can capitalize on this by paying attention to empathy, active listening, and honing in on the personable client connection.

While women, on average and in general, may have a natural advantage with these skills, they can be learned by anyone. All of us, male, female, emotional and rational, should take some time to focus on skills no one taught in law school.

About the Author

Billie Tarascio is an attorney and the owner of Modern Law in Phoenix, Arizona.  Contact her at 480.649.2905 or on Twitter @mymodernlaw.

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