“Soft skills” have been wrongly labelled as such, for some time, overshadowed by the legal and technical abilities professionals have developed – effectively, the very education they paid for, in sweat, time and tears. 

But just as in medicine, where doctors must learn about “bedside manner,” lawyers must not lose sight of their own empathy, particularly leaders and department heads. Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority, in a changed workplace and with a global pandemic set to become an integrated part of our lives and futures. 

A 2019 Workplace Empathy Study showed that 90% of employees believe that empathy is important in the workplace, and 80% would leave an employer who they don’t believe is empathetic, and since the pandemic, this is likely to have only solidified.

Lawyers have often been trained to “poke holes” in someone else’s position as opposed to attempting to relate to it. To win, to close the deal, to be hyper-focused on their side’s results, sometimes at the expense of connecting and empathizing with others.

Far from a soft approach, an empathetic approach can drive business results, loyalty, and morale. We know demonstrating empathy is positive for people in social situations, but research underlines its importance for everything from morale, retention and results.  

Leading with Empathy and its impact on Morale

Empathy is a central component of emotional intelligence and effective leadership. Leaders can demonstrate empathy in two ways.

First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy (“If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”).

Leaders can also focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”). 

But leaders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then listen to employees’ responses. 

Leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health in order to demonstrate they care and are paying attention to their teams but it’s enough to check in, ask questions and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share.

Pay attention, ask thoughtful and better questions, listen deeply and practice.

The understood workforce is likely to take that appreciation and understanding into all of their relationships and these personal and professional connections build a deeper employee engagement and loyalty, as well as improved performance, productivity, sense of belonging and client service.

Incidentally, empathy is among these so-called “soft skills” that are frequently investigated by the legal directories during their research and interviews with clients, and as important for the rankings as they are for clients making decisions on which “leading” firm to use.