This is a story about a lawyer in western North Carolina who had a superpower.
The irony was that she didn’t fully appreciate her special ability– and wasn’t even sure it was a good thing – until several years into her law career.
This was so even though it had paid off throughout her life, starting in preschool where she was praised for “playing well with others” and continuing through adolescence (“A” student, captain of the lacrosse team) and law school (standout in Trial Advocacy).
It also helped land her first law job, at a small firm near her hometown. She enjoyed the work. She got good performance reviews. And yet ….
“Boy, your clients really love you,” said her supervising attorney.
But he said it with an edge, as if he sensed they didn’t love him quite as much and felt vaguely threatened by that fact.
“I’m assigning you this case,” he said on another occasion, as he handed her a file. “It could use your warm-and-fuzzy touch.”
Again, the words sounded innocuous enough. But they came with a whiff of condescension. She wasn’t being acknowledged as the superb attorney, stellar advocate and skilled negotiator that she was, but for something else. Her gender? Her warm-and-fuzziness, whatever that meant?
Pretty soon she moved on – parting amicably and with a nice recommendation – to join a midsize firm all the way across the state in Asheville.
Standing in Another’s Shoes
At her new digs, she was patient in getting to know her colleagues. She learned the office terrain. She stayed in her lane.
And she was careful to use the prescribed intake form for interviewing prospective clients. She asked each question just as it appeared on the page. She initialed and dated the form as required.
Then one day she was interviewing a particularly anxious divorce client. She asked him the usual questions. She filled in all the blanks. As she prepared to end the conference, she looked up.
There he sat: eyes downcast, wringing his hands, shaking his head like he could not believe what was happening. He looked so miserable that, without even thinking about it, she went off-script.
“Is there anything else you think I should know?”
And then it all came gushing out. How worried he was for his children. How he hadn’t been sleeping. How he’d never felt so helpless in his life.
This time she took no notes. She said little. She just listened.
Seeing Through Another’s Eyes
A few days later, her managing partner stopped her in the hall.
“I just heard from client X,” he said. “He said he’s hiring our firm and you’re the reason why.”
Her manager went on to say the client had complimented her legal skills, but mostly he talked about how she gave him undivided attention, showed him kindness, and made him feel valued when he was feeling anything but.
“Great job,” he said, beaming at her. “We’re lucky to have someone like you. Any lawyer can understand the law, but few can understand other people.”
That was when she realized that empathy, which came so naturally to her, was neither a weakness nor a professional liability. Quite the opposite. It was a superpower.
The Highest Form of Human Knowledge
“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” – Brene Brown
True leaders – in the law and in life – get it. They know the importance of stepping outside your own thoughts and feelings to view things from another perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person. You do not have to love them, or even like them.
But if you want to help them, you first must listen to them. And not just listen, but hear.
Poor leaders don’t get it. They do not view empathy as a superpower, perhaps because they lack the confidence, self-awareness, or emotional bandwidth to even see it. So they minimize its value in favor of things they can understand, like billable hours and law school pedigrees.
The good news is that empathy can be learned. Having a good role model helps. As does having courage.
And the rewards – whether it’s attracting new business in your practice or opening new space in your heart – are spectacular.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.