Insights/18 Apr 2019

Empathy and Leadership – Something for Lawyers or Not?

Finnish legal culture reveres individual expertise and independence when it comes to what is expected of Finnish lawyers in terms of their competence and skills. Lawyers have generally been seen more as independent lone wolves rather than as team players. However, as teamwork is widely appreciated in various professional fields, we should ask why the legal field puts such a great emphasis on individualism.

Many professions involve individualistic features, so what are the elements that distinguish lawyers from other professionals in this respect? One of the factors could be that legal education in Finland has traditionally focused on building a legal culture that fosters an image of the typical lawyer as an independent professional who works alone, for example as a judge, with the aspiration of gaining great professional recognition and emphasising personal integrity as decision maker. In this respect, both society and the nature of lawyers’ work have changed substantially. Nowadays, lawyers are expected to fit smoothly into their respective organisations and work as part of the team in order to produce added value. This applies not only to private businesses, but also to the public and third sectors as well. There is a clear discord between the more traditional professional identity many lawyers continue to aspire to and the expectations of modern working life insofar as your skills as a team player and your emotional intelligence are concerned.

Lawyers are increasingly hired by teams and organisations that use teamwork as a way of handling demanding tasks and finding solutions. As a result, lawyers are faced with the same requirements for good leadership that have been commonly adopted by organisations. Legal organisations have experienced significant growth over the past few decades, particularly in the private sector, and lawyers often take on managerial responsibilities as well. Their subordinates can be other lawyers, experts, assistants or trainees, among others, and they all have increasingly higher expectations of what constitutes good leadership. Moreover, many lawyers work in matrix organisations and are involved in projects where they might not necessarily have direct subordinates, but where they do have the opportunity to promote the organisation’s goals through their opinions, expertise and experience. This kind of interaction also calls for leadership.

Good social skills and emotional intelligence are new skills that modern lawyers are increasingly expected to have these days. However, one of the first things that law students are taught in respect of legal thinking is the ability to assess whether something is legally relevant or not – feelings are irrelevant. Practical exercises often involve emotional statements that law students are taught to identify as being legally irrelevant and, as such, to ignore in their legal reasoning. Nevertheless, even though legal rationality disregards emotions, this does not mean that emotions are not an integral part of practising law. Quite the contrary – the majority of lawyers’ work involves human interaction between individuals.

The ability to identify and interpret emotions is one of the most important skills a modern lawyer can have. Lawyers engage in negotiations, deal with governmental officials and settle disputes. Emotional intelligence is a quality that benefits lawyers enormously in these areas of their profession. Good negotiators are able to actively listen to others and read between the lines in order to understand what the other party considers important and to discover exactly why that is. As such, lawyers with strong social skills are able to look for solutions that will satisfy the other party as well. In the field of dispute resolution, social awareness enables lawyers to read the parties’ behaviour and the situation in the courtroom in addition to ensuring that they choose the most suitable arguments in any given situation – the best legal analysis or the most aggressive approach will not always win you the case. One important skill is also the ability to adapt to different social situations. Lawyers with keen emotional intelligence do not necessarily stick to their own characteristic behaviour models that others have come to expect of them.

In conclusion, modern lawyers must now possess new qualities that have not been expected of them before. One of these is empathy, which is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Since empathy is often thought of as a soft skill, it is less frequently attributed to successful and tough-as-nails lawyers. However, modern working life and society are evolving to be more and more social, and as such, skills that have traditionally been perceived as soft are becoming hard currency in today’s working environment. Many lawyers who have strong expertise but who lack in social awareness are struggling these days because clients and work communities will no longer tolerate a lack of social skills.

Next autumn, Borenius and the Faculty of Law at the University of Helsinki will organise the first study module on leadership for lawyers as part of the Master’s Programme in Law.

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Additional information

Casper Herler