The Heart of Lawyering

Posted by Editor Kristi Heidel

The following is an excerpt from Kristin B. Gerdy, The Heart of Lawyering: Clients, Empathy, and Compassion, 3(24) Religious Conviction (2013). (View Full Paper).

Understanding clients and exercising empathy and compassion comprise the heart of lawyering. The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” The English word empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung, which literally translated means “feeling into.” According to Carl Rogers, the founder of the client-centered therapy movement, to demonstrate true empathy is to “sense the Client’s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality,” whereas compassion, which is often mistakenly seen as synonymous with empathy, is “the feeling or emotion when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succor.” This definition refers to the compassion given “towards a person in distress by one who is free from it, who is, in this respect, his superior.”

To “understand, from a human point of view, what the other wants to happen in the world” requires the lawyer to think, feel, and understand what that person would think, feel, and understand, to be what Professor Martha Nussbaum terms “an intelligent reader of that person’s story.” Simply put, when a person experiences empathy, she is able to “stand in the shoes” of the other person.

To be truly effective in the use of empathy, the “intelligent reader” of the other’s story must become the “accurate translator” of that story to others. A lawyer fundamentally is a translator. As such, she needs to be able to empathize with the other side in order to translate that point of view for her client during settlement negotiations. She also needs to empathize with what opposing counsel is experiencing in order to relate effectively with her. She needs to empathize with the judge or the jury in order to know their concerns and address them as she conveys information to her client and as she makes her own strategic judgments. In other words, empathy is fundamental to the hard-care lawyering skills that affect results.

Compassionate lawyers bear the burden of others, namely their clients. …[They] can hardly be restrained from trying to render assistance and to bring healing when they witness suffering, pain, and other injustice. …[A]ll lawyers can help to bear the burdens of others as they focus on the people they serve and seek solutions for the problems they face.

Further, compassionate lawyers comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Often this comfort is given by small acts of compassion that may or may not be directly related to the legal proceedings in which the lawyer is involved. Sometimes this compassion is shown simply by the way the lawyer interacts with the client and in the relationship that develops between the two.

By bearing burdens, giving comfort, and showing care in their interactions with others, lawyers can demonstrate compassion in their professional practice.

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