Empathy: Finding Echoes of Another in Yourself

By Logan C. Stone, HeLP Fall 2017 Student Intern

Lawyers, by virtue of their profession, are asked to wear many hats throughout their career. As are most other professionals. At any given time, they are an advocate, an advisor, a counselor, a champion, or a friend, to name a few. Undoubtedly, some attorneys fulfill these roles better than do others.

But is there a mechanism by which we can improve our capability in fulfilling these roles while simultaneously being effective once assuming these roles?

Take the initial client interview for example. Say your new client has a housing conditions issue. Since this type of issue requires an on-site viewing of the living conditions, a visit to the client’s home is necessary to investigate the matter. Of course, the case file gives a brief two or three-line description of the housing issue, but you honestly have no true grasp on the severity of the issue.

When you enter the home, the client’s ceiling is decayed with water damage, while the flooring is scuffed, uneven, and a home for various insects and rodents. One of the bedrooms has a few holes in the wall, allowing access to anything curious enough to make its way inside. The kitchen is dilapidated, cabinets broken, countertops unusable, in addition to the black mold slowly consuming the place where the client’s food is prepared.

How are we as professionals supposed to react? Is there any one correct way?

Almost immediately, as sympathetic people, many would offer their sincere apologies to the client to convey their emotional reaction to the client’s difficult situation. Conventional sympathetic responses such as “I am so sorry” or “This is so terrible” would be the go-to responses. This type of reaction would be an example of sympathy, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.” In layman’s terms, sympathy is the reaction by which we recognize another’s feelings, without internalizing them, while seeking to alleviate their distress.

Our mothers would agree that everyone should have sympathy. That is not in dispute here. But what if there was a way to improve upon our sympathetic tendencies?

What if instead of merely recognizing our client’s precarious circumstances and offering a pre-packaged, borderline apathetic condolence out of absent-mindedness, we literally put ourselves in our client’s shoes? By shifting the paradigm from how our client must be feeling to a viewpoint by which we as professionals would ask ourselves how we would feel in our client’s situation, the intensity of our advocacy evolves instantaneously.

Sympathy is a surface-level emotional reaction to a set of stimuli. Empathy, while often used interchangeably with sympathy, could be a breakthrough in how professionals interact with their clients. “Most theorists agree that empathy describes multiple distinct but related processes through which people respond to others’ emotions. These include an ‘affective’ component – vicariously taking on others’ feelings – a ‘cognitive’ component – reasoning about others’ emotions – and a ‘motivational’ component – desiring for others’ emotional states to improve.”  (Moving beyond Stereotypes of Empathy, Jamil Zaki, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, February 2017, Vol. 21, No. 2).

The three-headed empathetic response simply shifts the way in which professionals view a client’s problem. Instead of viewing a client’s deplorable housing conditions as a personal issue you are retained to resolve, empathy is a method for connecting to the issue in a penetrating and personal way. The shift in perspective converts the internal dialogue from how you would react personally to what is your client feeling at the most basic level. The transition from immediately attacking the problem with your expertise to focusing on the status of client can allow you to tailor your advice to the client’s needs. Client-centered lawyering is built on empathy, and making small alterations to how we relate to one another can significantly improve our effectiveness and capacity as professionals.