Why Empathy Is Crucial In Law
The pandemic has changed the relationships we have with each other – our peers, colleagues, and clients – and it’s made human connection more appreciated than ever. But for some legal firms, empathy in their practices and culture is still lacking and many fail to deliver the personal touch.
So, what is empathy and why do some legal firms struggle?
If you take the dictionary definition of empathy, it refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy though. Empathy requires you to stand in someone else’s shoes and think about why they may feel that way, whereas sympathy is all about understanding a situation from your own perspective. Empathy is genuine and it is demonstrable. It underpins the shared human experience and helps us to understand the emotional impact of the things that happen to us, the way we feel and how we act.
In many ways, it seems surprising then that legal firms’ ability to show empathy may be under par. After all, most people’s need for legal services is entrenched in emotion – whether that’s the difficulty of a divorce, the worry associated with writing a will or going through probate, the emotional uncertainty of a custody battle or the precariousness of buying a property. In all these scenarios, clients need empathy. But it can sometimes feel at odds with a profession still steeped in tradition, and where the focus is often on efficiency, technical legal skill and straight-talking.
Empathy is often described as a soft skill which makes it sound nice to have, when in fact empathy is the language of emotion. Empathy is crucial to business. Insight 6’s Professional Services Client Journey Report from 2021 revealed just how lacking empathy can be in legal firms, as it highlighted that first contact with firms often lacked the personal touch and that it was still often missing when callers were put through to a legal specialist too.
Why is empathy so crucial now?
We’ve just come through a time categorised by separation, isolation, loss, and uncertainty and it’s had a lasting effect on what we want and expect from the legal service providers we buy from. How legal firms respond – be that over the phone, face-to-face or via online channels such as live chat or social media – can make the difference between a client feeling validated or under-valued.
The pandemic made us value connection with others, as well as appreciate the businesses that prioritised accessibility and the public’s need for reassurance and support. People’s working hours and locations changed too – which removed the constraints of 9-5 and saw people reach out to businesses outside traditional office hours, often in a heightened state of anxiety.
Legal professionals felt these changes first-hand – not only navigating increased client needs but also the challenges associated with remote working such as completing ID checks, witnessing documents, and dealing with postponed court hearings, not to mention unprecedented demand for services such as conveyancing.
All these changes, for clients and professionals, have created a need for more authentic relationships. Leading emotional intelligence specialist and founder of the EI Evolution Sandra Thompson, who recently contributed to the ‘Putting Empathy at the Heart of Customer Care Guide’ believes that Covid not only heightened our collective anxieties but also affected our tolerance and gave us permission to speak more openly. The result is that legal firms have an opportunity to build meaningful and lasting relationships with their clients.
7 Ways To Boost Empathy In Legal Practice
- Ask Questions – One of the best empathy-led behaviours a legal firm can have, is to ask brilliant questions of those they’re trying to help. Asking clients to articulate how they feel – instead of imagining or assuming – can expedite the best outcome. By listening, we provide space for clients to express themselves, which can offer hugely valuable insights. It also creates time for legal professionals to really consider what’s been said and think about how they can help before they respond.
- Don’t rush – Don’t rush or interrupt clients just because you need to capture certain information – empathy involves patience. Make sure your client-facing team can confidently manage and contribute to the conversation as it unfolds.
- Repeat – Use clients’ own words to show you’ve understood, and make them feel acknowledged. It’s proven that in employer-employee disputes, when both sides repeat what the other has said, resolution is reached 50% faster. In client care terms, this is a serious win.
- React – Reacting to what you’ve heard as you’ve heard it shows you’re listening. Failure to react to a client’s conversation can come across as being disinterested or distracted.
- Be genuine – Be your authentic self and respond accordingly. While you must always be professional, make sure you’re also human and that responses are sincere.
- Legitimise feelings – Make sure clients know their feelings are valid. Showing that you understand, take their feelings seriously and will act accordingly can be achieved through tone, choice of words and the steps put in place for follow-up
- Don’t make it about you – People often think empathy is sharing an experience you feel is comparable. Don’t add your comparison or judgements, it will break the feeling of connection.
As a business that handles inbound and outbound communication around the clock, we know first-hand that empathy shapes client experience. It underpins how we connect with others and has the power to transform reputation. Displaying empathy not only reassures clients and shows you care, but also garners insights that can shape service delivery and help to put you at the forefront of your market.
As the world returns to normal, we must remember that clients expect empathy. They want to be heard, understood, and valued. Legal firms must improve their listening skills and respond authentically. If empathy is the language of emotion, it’s time for legal firms to boost their vocabulary.