Women and the Law Newsletter
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

March 2016, vol. 21, no. 4

Why divorce lawyers should be tuning in more with their “sensitive side” to relate better to clients

I will be the first to admit that I lack on the sensitive side of the emotional spectrum. In fact, I have been described by some colleagues as appearing “cold” and “insensitive.” As divorce lawyers, that may be our default position in order to detach ourselves from our client’s personal issues and get a better sense of the issues. While we may be doing our job in order to best serve our client, that client, however, may perceive us as “not caring”; and once they get their bill, they will think we just want their money.

In my five years of experience in the family law field, I have worked with a wide variety of personalities. I know of one attorney in particular who had an extraordinary ability to relate to clients as they sat crying in his office. He would hug them, sympathize with their situation, join them in anger and in sadness, and promise to fight for them ‘til the end! The attorney would relate personal stories of his own struggles which made the client feel like this attorney was his or her friend. Once the client felt that bond, it did not matter what the attorney’s “legal strategy” was - he was it. He was their friend and confidante. He would be invited to dinners, they would bring home-cooked meals and presents from abroad. I covered a case for this attorney once since he was running late. I was trying to negotiate a settlement but the parties were just too far apart. Once he arrived, I saw how he spoke to the parties in such a caring and concerned way. The opposing party, who was pro se, vented to the attorney about how unfair and mean her ex-husband was, and he just let her rant and would often interrupt to agree with her. “You’re right!” he said. He did not give her any legal advice. Once she was done venting, she took the deal. I walked away with a new-found understanding of the power of empathy.

I don’t know how real this attorney’s sense of empathy was for his clients or if it was all an act, but the clients felt loved and protected. One prior employer used to call this ability to relate to clients as “emotional intelligence.” He stressed that as attorneys, we start to speak to our clients in “legalese.” Depending on the educational level of your client, that may just work. However, for a large part of the population, that will go over many people’s heads. If that is all you do in a consultation with a prospective client, you may never see this client again.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “empathy” as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow described empathy as “learning how to feel with others” and states that empathy “is an essential part of the client-lawyer relationship”1 Professor Menkel-Meadow encourages empathy training for lawyers and stresses that “the lawyer who hopes to effectuate a successful transaction or settle a lawsuit or amend an administrative regulation needs to understand what the goals and feelings of the other are, if only to effectuate the needs and goals of the client.”2 In other words, the lawyer must be able to “stand in the shoes” of the other person. Once that occurs, the lawyer begins to understand the client’s feelings and understand, in a nonjudgmental way, the client’s position; the lawyer is then better equipped to passionately defend his client’s position. I also find that the client begins to trust the attorney more thereby making the attorney’s job easier. In the end, it does not matter whether you win or lose the case for the client as the client felt truly represented and defended. That makes for a happy client, and happy clients pay their bill, for the most part.

Despite my understanding of the power of empathy, for me that is one of the hardest parts of being a divorce attorney. It can be very difficult to truly empathize with a client especially if you do not agree with that person’s point-of-view, and it can be emotionally draining to have to relate to several clients a day. It truly takes a lot of effort, at least for me, to be sensitive to the wide range of emotions that I see on a daily basis, and find it easier to distance myself emotionally and just focus on the legal issues. However, I understand that in order to fully represent in my clients in every aspect, including the legal and emotional side, I need to be in tune with their emotions. Once my clients feel understood by me, they will trust me more which makes for an easier and more effective lawyer-client relationship.

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Alexandra Martinez is an associate attorney with the law firm of Anderson & Boback, which practices primarily in areas of Family Law.  She is a member of the Illinois State Bar Association, Chicago Bar Association and the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois.  Ms. Martinez can be reached at amartinez@illinoislawforyou.com.

 

1. Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Narrowing the Gap by Narrowing the Field: What’s Missing from the MacCrate Report-Of Skills, Legal Science and Being a Human Being, 69 WASH. L. REV. 593, 620 (1994).

2. Id. at 620