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April 2018

How emotional intelligence helps you avoid ethical traps

Studies show that lawyers with high emotional intelligence perform better than their less emotionally in-tune colleagues in production and revenues, while reaping the most promotions and bonuses. And because lawyers with high emotional intelligence communicate better, they are better equipped to navigate ethical challenges and avoid the primary reason for disciplinary and malpractice claims — poor communication, according to Ronda Muir, author of, “Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence,” and a panelist on the ABA webinar, “The Ethical Advantage of Emotional Intelligence.”

Following the ABA Model Rules requires using judgment, respect and sensitivity. The rules do not, however, exhaust the moral and ethical considerations that should inform a lawyer’s behavior, which is where developing emotional intelligence comes in.

“How we interact with people makes a difference in whether we’re behaving ethically or not,” said panelist David Shor, director of clinical services at Northwestern University.

For example, when it comes to malpractice, the biggest complaint is, “My lawyer isn’t talking to me,” Muir said. More than a third of malpractice claims involve poor communication. “Don’t assume this isn’t something you need to worry about. Remember that 4 out of 5 lawyers have at least one malpractice claim during their career.”

Trending disciplinary charges among state bar associations involve fees, poor communication (lawyer comes off as insensitive or arrogant) or conflict of interest, Muir said. “We have to be very aware of not only the perception of our clients, but our own perception of how compromised we are by a conflict of interest.”

The definition of emotional intelligence that Shor favors is: “Having the capacity to effectively understand oneself and others, relate well to others and adapt and cope to surroundings in order to deal successfully with environmental demands.”  This definition implies that these are skills that can be learned and developed.

Muir said the four main components of emotional intelligence are:

  1. Emotional perception. “We must be able to perceive our own emotions and the emotions of others and see them accurately.”

  2. Emotional empathy, which means perceiving emotions of others accurately and identifying similar feelings in yourself. “It’s the opposite of arrogance.”

  3. Emotional understanding. “Do you understand what gets someone from annoyed to enraged?”

  4. Emotional regulation. “Do you have the ability required to make a situation better by using emotional regulation skills?”

Cultivating emotional intelligence skills can build resilience and improve sociability – which is feeling comfortable initiating and maintaining relationships – both areas where lawyers are lacking, Muir said. Dealing successfully with clients or witnesses can sometimes hinge on heightened emotional intelligence skills.

Shor sees a danger when a lawyer is only concerned with intelligence and dismisses the importance of emotional intelligence. Over time, putting an emphasis on rational thought can weaken the ability to summon appropriate emotions, he said. A key to being able to express and identify emotions is to check within our bodies, since emotions will be expressed in our biology, he said. If you are stressed, you will be hobbled in your ability to manage emotions.

One of the core concepts of emotional intelligence is mindfulness, recognizing that your attention has drifted and being able to bring it back to where you want it to be. When we’re grounded, we can recognize mindfulness in others around us. When trying to connect with someone, ask them what’s happening in their life and listen carefully to their responses.

Shor said it can be hard to connect with difficult people. Imagine looking at your phone and realizing that a difficult person is calling. How does your body respond? Your heart races and you frantically start thinking about escaping the situation — all before any interaction has even taken place. When dealing with difficult people, take a deep breath to avoid reacting instead of responding.

Muir pointed out how emotional intelligence skills come into play with Model Rules compliance:

  • Model Rule 1.1 is about competence in terms of legal knowledge and skill, with a high degree of thoroughness and preparation, which requires being an effective lawyer. A lawyer who lacks emotional intelligence will struggle with maintaining competence and will not be effective.

  • Model Rule 1.4 is about communication – keeping clients informed, complying with requests for information. Emotional intelligence skills can be most helpful in complying with this rule. Being supportive when appropriate, being patient and having a sense of how you are perceived by others will go a long way toward communicating effectively.

  • Model Rule 1.7 is about conflicts of interest. Not having good communication skills can exacerbate or even create a conflict of interest.

  • Model Rule 3.2 concerns expediting litigation. Without emotional intelligence skills, a lawyer is more likely to be impatient or patronizing toward a client, which will result in dragging out situations rather than keeping the case moving forward.

  • Model Rule 8.3 is about reporting professional misconduct in a lawyer or judge. If you’ve become aware of a colleague who has mistreated a client or colleague, you are required to report it.

  • Model Rule 8.4 is about misconduct — to violate or attempt to violate the rules, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another … and to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This is where good judgment comes in, which comes with emotional intelligence.


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