Running a law firm requires a lot of skills. You need to have great legal acumen, the ability to time manage, administrative capabilities... The list is endless.
We’ve even covered a few more of these essential qualities in our post on what makes a great leader? But on top of that, you also need to ensure you've got some soft skills. Why? Because these are the skills greasing the wheels of your legal machine, building relationships, resolving disputes, and securing new clients.
One such soft skill that should be foremost in your and your employees' minds is empathy. This is something we discussed with Larry Nussbaum on The Rankings Podcast.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of others. Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy allows you to comprehend how others are feeling without sharing those feelings. This helps you to remain objective.
Empathy is hugely important for lawyers because very often you'll find yourselves working with clients in various emotional states. And where the sympathetic person might get too emotionally involved, the empathetic person understands the issue but remains professional.
How to Be Empathethic
On the surface, empathy seems like a fairly simple skill to harness. And while nodding in agreement might feel like you're being empathetic, there are a few more components to making people feel truly heard and understood. To be empathetic you need to:
- Abandon your perspective and see things from their point of view.
- Give your full attention to who is speaking - take note of their tone, language and body language.
- Understand what you're being told - reiterate what is being said or ask them to clarify if you don’t understand
- Acknowledge what you've been told.
Barriers to Empathy
So why might we not be as empathetic as we could be? The simple answer is that although it looks easy, having and showing empathy takes effort.
There are a lot of distractions nowadays and a lot of us are usually juggling several mental tasks at once. To actively listen to someone requires you to put all of your distractions to one side and focus solely on what's being said.
And understanding someone's perspective is easier said than done. We all have preconceived ideas about the world, and when we're required to look at an issue from someone else's point of view it can be difficult. And being seen to 'not get it' definitely does not make anyone feel empathized with.
Also, on the topic of distractions, many workplaces (not just law firms) have goals and targets to reach. So sometimes putting in more effort on the soft skills can take a back seat.
But, in truth, honing your emotional intelligence can have benefits for your staff, clients, and, your firm.
Benefits of Empathy for Staff
The greatest advantage of having empathetic employees is that it makes for a much more pleasant work environment. Taking the time to understand others' perspectives shows care and respect for co-workers. It lets people know that they are heard and valued. This develops closer professional relationships among co-workers and strengthens teams. This leads to better cooperation and helps firms to achieve their goals.
Empathy among colleagues also helps to reduce disputes. This is because it teaches people to first listen and understand different viewpoints before offering counter-arguments. Basically, it encourages the simple (but effective) technique of thinking before speaking.
Benefits of Empathy for Management
Empathetic team leaders and managers also contribute to more efficient teams. Having managers that are open and understanding makes employees feel safe. This is because employees know that managers will try to look for the root cause of issues, rather than blaming the employee straight away.
Empathetic managers also understand that the only way to achieve a firm's goals is through teamwork. This means that they're more likely, and better equipped, to support their team. This could be by:
- Helping team members who are struggling - this helps employees to improve and reduces the number of mistakes.
- Tailoring their leadership style to individuals - empathetic leaders understand the needs of individuals and that a one-size-fits-all approach might not be the best way to communicate and motivate.
- Looking for the causes of failures and mistakes beyond the person.
Simply put, empathy creates a safer-feeling and more cohesive working environment. An environment where employees are more likely to understand one another and seek guidance before mistakes are allowed to happen.
Benefits of Empathy for Clients
So how about the advantages empathy offers in terms of attracting and keeping new clients?
Clients Feel Understood
For starters, the active listening we mentioned will not only help lawyers to understand one another but clients too. This is advantageous for two reasons. Firstly, it means the lawyer will be fully open and receptive to what the client is saying. And taking in every detail is, obviously, beneficial when it comes to handling the facts of the case. Secondly, as the client notices that they are being heard and understood without being interrupted or judged, their trust will build because they'll know you're seeing their story from their perspective.
Clients' Needs Are Met
Being empathetic also allows lawyers to understand the mood and tone of others better. It helps them to read the room. This in turn allows them to respond to others more effectively. Much in the same way an empathetic manager can tailor their communications to staff, an empathetic lawyer will be able to tailor their communication to a client. Some clients like to be told news directly, and some clients might need a gentler approach. Using the right tone at the right time can mean a lot to a client, and that builds that all-important trust.
Clients Feel Prioritized
Finally, being empathetic the right way - focusing wholly on the speaker, not judging and acknowledging their message - makes the speaker feel prioritized. Because they are. Big and small firms all strive for that personable service. They want their clients to feel that when their case is being dealt with, they are a person receiving individual attention, not just another ticket being processed by a machine. And actively listening does exactly that. It makes the client feel that they are receiving your full attention and your years of education and experience are being put into their case. They feel heard, valued and, once again their trust in you grows.
Benefits of Empathy for Law Firms
You've turned your law firm into a more empathetic environment, so what are some of the implications of that? Firstly, among your employees, greater understanding of one another will likely lead better teamwork. This can lead to innovation as more people come together to find solutions to problem. Extra cooperation could also lead to more of your practice's goals and targets being achieved.
With your existing clients you could see greater retention too. The increased trust they have in you and the strong relationships you've fostered will make them more likely to return to you in the future. After all, why take their business elsewhere and risk working with someone who doesn't listen to, understand or respect them as well as you do.
Finally, now that you've built rock-solid relationships with your existing clients, they'll be far more likely to recommend you to their friends. The Clio 2019 Trend Report showed that 32% of clients search for lawyers through referral. So by establishing yourself as a trustworthy and understanding lawyer, you're going to go straight to the top of everyone's recommended list. To learn a bit more about referrals, take a look at our other post on how to get clients and check out the section on referrals.
It might take a bit of effort and mental retraining, but utilizing empathy presents a great opportunity for law firms as well as providing a way for them to improve their value and the value they offer.