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October 2017

How emotional intelligence makes you a better lawyer

Studies show that lawyers score high in intelligence but below average in emotional intelligence, and Ronda Muir, author of “Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence,” says that plays a part in the public’s low opinion of them.

According to Muir, emotional intelligence has four components: emotional perception, emotional empathy, emotional understanding and emotional regulation. She writes that “the emotionally intelligent have an accurate awareness of emotions in themselves and others, can tap into how those emotions feel and are able to understand and manage emotions so as to produce the desired results.”

Muir is founder and principal of Law People Management LLC, which offers solutions to people management challenges unique to the legal industry. She advises corporate law departments and law firms of all sizes on increasing profitability by aligning structure, leadership, compensation, professional development and culture to enhance client service.

The book, put out by the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution, includes chapters on the business case for EI lawyers, ways EI builds more successful law firms and law departments, how to achieve an EI workplace, as well as EI assessments and worksheets.

YourABA went to Muir to find out more.

Lawyers have typically been taught to be skeptical of emotions. Does becoming emotionally intelligent have a downside when practicing law?

There are very few downsides to becoming more emotionally intelligent, even for the militantly rational like some lawyers. A handful of isolated studies have identified a couple of odd possible negatives, although they are far from certain, like a reduced ability to recognize lies (probably because of enhanced empathy for the liar’s viewpoint), an overload of “personal information” (also due to increased empathy) or not being as neurotic and emotionally unmanaged as we think of as being creative. Yet other studies demonstrate the emotionally intelligent to be more attuned to truth, to have better emotional coping skills and to be more creative and able to get innovative ideas acted upon.

Real downsides, however, are associated with incomplete or unbalanced emotional intelligence. Those who have sinister goals—as narcissists and sociopaths may, for example—can use EI skills in recognizing emotional cues and in understanding how to use emotions to manipulate others for their selfish ends. What they lack is empathy—also a component of emotional intelligence—which keeps them from feeling the harm they are doing. On the other hand, those with high empathy may get paralyzed when making a decision or delivering a message that is unpopular if they do not have emotional management skills over their own emotional response to hurting or disappointing others. The key to a successful professional and personal life is to develop all aspects of emotional intelligence—particularly the four components I discuss in the book—to a level that supports the others.

What’s the best way for an individual lawyer to become more emotionally intelligent?

I would start with raising awareness. It’s amazing how effective simply becoming more aware of the importance and impact of emotions can be in changing our attitudes and behaviors. And emotional awareness is the EI skill that lawyers usually score the lowest in. The book lists a number of ways to improve in this area. For example, you can start noting on whatever regular basis you are comfortable with—every meal, every time you walk through a doorway, every hour—exactly what you are feeling emotionally. Mentally or literally, note the mental and physical attributes of what you are feeling.  You can even build a chart, like the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Mood Meter (which is also an app), to help expand your awareness and build your emotional vocabulary. It’s hard to think or talk about something you don’t have a vocabulary for.

Another good exercise for lawyers while they are whizzing around the country on airplanes is to watch the movie on mute—see if you can follow the course of the plot by simply reading the emotional cues. You can tune in to the sound occasionally to check for accuracy. Use that improving skill to read the emotional cues in your professional and social interactions. Or identify a high EI buddy to reflect on your readings of situations. It could be your spouse, your friend, even a colleague who shows abilities in this area and can give you a different perspective.

You write that emotionally intelligent lawyers make more money. How?

Studies show that the emotionally intelligent out-perform in production and revenues their less emotionally intelligent colleagues, and then, logically, they also get the most promotions and bonuses. These studies specifically include professionals like accountants, insurance reps, stock brokers and consultants who can successfully “sell” to others their expertise in a subject. Lawyers also demonstrate this result—essentially, they are better at getting and keeping clients. Baker McKenzie pursued an emotional intelligence professional development program after the recession that raised its revenues to all-time highs and that it continues to benefit from. Most recently, Harvard Law professor Heidi Gardner followed a global law firm to confirm statistically that those lawyers with the EI skills to successfully collaborate were the ones who had the highest revenues.

And the emotionally intelligent also enjoy more profits, not just higher revenues, because their health care and liability costs are lower.

Your book recommends that law firms take a top-down approach to achieving an emotionally intelligent workplace. Why is that, and how should it be done?

The importance of high EI leadership can’t be overstated: a leader sets the emotional tone for the group, impacting its productivity, level of conflict, ability to innovate and follow through on change, its mental and physical health and liability exposure.

While we know that the most successful leaders have higher emotional intelligence, the surprise in the leadership field is that those at the top are nonetheless usually less emotionally intelligent than their charges. Often this is because they were appointed for reasons not related to leadership (like seniority), aren’t schooled in leadership and aren’t given candid feedback. Lawyers generally exhibit a lower emotional intelligence than other professionals, so that adds an extra burden on the legal profession to identify, develop and appoint emotionally intelligent leaders who can lead us to success in an increasingly challenging marketplace.

Lawyer leaders should take the steps outlined in the book to raise their emotional intelligence, including participating in training and expanding feedback mechanisms.

You write that emotional intelligence lowers the risk of liability. How?

Most importantly, emotionally intelligent lawyers communicate better, avoiding the No. 1 reason for disciplinary and malpractice claims in the U.S. and Canada. Further, while emotional intelligence can’t compensate for willful misconduct, there is evidence that unmanaged emotions like anger and frustration — and the habit of avoiding dealing with those emotions — are what put lawyers most at risk for not only a single disciplinary action but for multiple ones.

Liability is often caused by a lapse in ethical judgment, which the Carnegie Foundation found not only doesn’t improve during law school, but actually declines. Very interesting research shows that using emotional intelligence skills sharpens our abilities to assess risks, to better understand which ethical standards are appropriate in a situation, to recognize when and how others are making ethical decisions and to deal better with the emotional fallout from our own ethical choices, especially when ignoring or acting against personal values, which lawyers may need to do in advocating for clients. 

The characterization of lawyers as being “risk-averse” is likely to be at least partly due to their emotional tone-deafness, which rightly leaves them feeling unable to properly assess risks. Fear and other emotions spring up without a system for evaluating them. The emotionally intelligent are able to pay attention to the emotional data around a risk, which are available much faster than cognitive data, and compare those with prior experiences. They can distinguish among the various emotions they are feeling and then can recognize and manage out of their deliberations those emotions that aren’t relevant, thereby reaching a more emotionally unbiased course of action. Thus, rather than restricting action, being emotionally intelligent can free lawyers to more confidently take on emotion-vetted risks.

How should law schools foster emotional intelligence in their students?

Law schools have been unwitting collaborators in emotionally dumbing down lawyers for generations. To start, we have evidence that the LSAT tends to prefer applicants who are prone to mild depression, in many cases indicating an emotional management deficit. Further, there is research showing that these low EI tendencies accelerate during law school, a trend that also existed at many medical schools until steps were put in place to teach emotional intelligence skills.

While there have been several different suggestions over the years for ways to incorporate emotional intelligence concepts into law school admissions and curricula, as many business and medical schools have now done, law schools have resolutely declined to do so, despite repeated surveys showing that employers feel the major components missing from law school training for a successful practice relate to emotions and social interactions.

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