Australia: The importance of emotional intelligence for lawyers

Last Updated: 21 December 2016
Article by Ruth M Hudson

Growing up and then coming to study law, I had always worried that my tendency to empathise and identify with someone who is suffering and my desire to want to help people would work against me and make it hard for me to do the best job for my clients. However, to my surprise and delight, I have found emotional intelligence to be one of the most important skills I can employ in securing great outcomes for my clients.

What is emotional intelligence?

I see emotional intelligence as a combination of qualities. Some of them originate from self-awareness, such as the ability to recognise and manage my own emotions. This is related to the ability to discriminate between different feelings, name them and identify their probable source and impact.

Other qualities are related to sensitivity to other people, such as the ability to identify the emotions of others through their verbal and non-verbal communication – for example, body language, eye contact (or lack thereof) and the tone and pace of their voice. This is a prerequisite to being able to manage and adjust my own emotions to adapt to the environment or the client's circumstances.

Such qualities make it easier both to connect with the client and to unearth information, so that I can gather the evidence required to yield the best possible result for them.

How do people respond to pain and trauma?

As a lawyer who has now been working in the field of personal injury law for the past seven years, I have dealt with clients who have suffered all manner of injuries and trauma, both psychological and physical, and have had the opportunity to observe how different people respond to and deal with pain and suffering in their lives.

One trend I have observed over the years is that for many people, the natural instinct when faced with adversity or suffering from impairments that leave them unable to do things that they used to be able to do with ease, is to put on a brave face and try to "just get on with things".

Contrary to the popular stereotype of the person bringing a compensation claim as a whinger or an opportunist, I have actually found that the majority of my clients have been very strong and stoic individuals, people who have wanted to get on with their lives as best they can and who have not wanted to burden others with their complaints.

Paying attention to non-verbal cues

Often when conducting meetings with my clients, I have found that there is more insight and information to be gathered from what they don't say, rather than what they tell me in answer to my questions.

This is where emotional intelligence comes into play. It helps to identify that there is more going on behind the scenes, that my client is either too afraid or embarrassed to admit that they are struggling, or that they have such a low opinion of themselves because of the trauma they have suffered that they don't even think that something is worth mentioning to me.

If a lawyer is not in touch with themselves or their clients on an emotional level, these sorts of signs can be missed and important information about how a client's life has been affected can be completely overlooked.

Reading between the lines of what the client is telling me and being attentive to what I can actually see is going on with them, in their body and their mind, can give me important leads about the evidence I need to gather, witnesses I need to speak to and angles to be explored in preparing their case.

Areas of law where emotional intelligence is vital

I would go so far as to argue that emotional intelligence is equally important for any lawyer who provides personal legal services in any area of law where an individual's fate hangs in the balance and where clients can be anxious, overwhelmed, embarrassed, confused or suffering from low self-esteem. This certainly includes family law and criminal law, as well as personal injury law.

Lawyers need to maintain professional boundaries

It is undeniable that there are restrictions and barriers to what a lawyer can do in support of their client. Lawyers need to be mindful of maintaining professional boundaries and not getting too caught up in their client's personal circumstances or struggles.

It is finding where that fine line is and walking it with determination and grace that, in my opinion, ensures that a client's case is prepared and prosecuted to the highest possible professional standard. Not only that, but it also demonstrates a deep concern and respect for them as a human being and may ultimately help to restore their sense of hope and their self-esteem.

Ruth Hudson
Personal injury
Stacks Law Firm

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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