Why Empathy Is a Vital Skill to Develop in Law
Empathy is an aspect of legal professions that is often neglected in training. Law students should ensure they get an early start on honing it for working life.
Legal education and training can sometimes seem to be focused on absorbing legal knowledge and developing specific legal skills, for example, advocacy or legal research. While such knowledge and skills are important, it is vital not to overlook other wider skills, such as empathy, which are valuable both in legal practice and in life generally. Emma Jones, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sheffield, explains what makes empathy an invaluable skill for legal professionals.
What is empathy?
Empathy is commonly understood as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In other words, imagining what another person is thinking and feeling. In fact, there appears to be two types of empathy. First, there is a cognitive form of empathy, where you use your thoughts to think from the perspective of someone else. Second, there an affective or emotional form of empathy, where you feel something of what you imagine that person is experiencing. The strongest forms of empathy are likely to combine the two – you have an emotional sensation but also remain aware that those emotions are not based on your own experience.
Why is empathy important?
Having empathy is very helpful as a law student. For example, imagine you are working on a project in a group and starting to feel frustrated that one group-member isn’t contributing fully. Using empathy to think about why that individual is behaving in that way can help you to take a constructive approach to resolving the issue. It could lead to you having a positive conversation with that person and setting in place practical strategies to enable them to contribute more. Even if these don’t work, it can help you to manage your frustration and appreciate the circumstances that have led to that person’s behaviour.
More widely, it can help you when studying law, particularly case law, to connect with the human elements involved. It reminds you that behind every case report there are people whose lives may be affected financially, emotionally or in myriad other ways.
If you are thinking of going on to work in the legal profession, or undertaking any clinical legal education, empathy is also important. In fact, the Bar Standards Board’s Professional Statement for Barristers refers to the need to know how and where to demonstrate empathy (3.4). All legal professionals need to understand the role of empathy. This is partly because it is a valuable tool to assist in developing a strong relationship and rapport with your clients. It is also to ensure you are aware of when your feelings of affective or emotional empathy could start to contribute to a danger of over-stepping professional boundaries. In other words, when empathy changes to sympathy.
When selecting a new Supreme Court Justice, former US President Barack Obama also argued that empathy is an important quality for judges, because it enables them to understand the impact of justice upon individuals’ circumstances.
More broadly, throughout life, empathy is vital. It can equip you to deal with a wide range of people, such as work colleagues. It can also enhance your relationships with family and friends by helping you to understand and respect their viewpoint more.
All legal professionals need to understand the role of empathy.
In addition, some researchers on empathy have argued that it is necessary to act as the spark which motivates people into performing kind and compassionate acts for others. For law students and legal professionals, this could include volunteering to become involved in pro bono work (‘for the public good’) or campaigning on issues relating to social justice and fairness.
How can I develop my use of empathy?
Even if you don’t feel like you’re a naturally empathetic person, there is evidence that empathy is a form of skill that can be taught and developed. A good starting point is to practice becoming more aware of your own and other people’s emotions. This can involve observing physical cues (a smile, a frown, hand movements) and also listening to their tone of voice. Building time into your schedule to reflect on your interactions with others, to think about the situation from the other person’s point of view and to consider how they experienced the situation, can also be helpful.
Overall, empathy is a vital skill and one which can be learnt and developed. Starting when studying law will not only help in the short term, but also be valuable after graduation, whether in your work as a legal professional, or in whatever other path you chose.