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Making Clients Feel Valued

JW Way Fundamental #4: Walk in your clients’ shoes 
“See the world from their perspective. Empathize by understanding their fears and concerns and showing you care. Ask, “If I were in their shoes, what would I want to know and how would I want to be treated?”

The underlying skill to achieve this JW Way fundamental is empathy.  Back in law school, we were taught what it took to be successful attorneys:  pay great attention to detail; know the facts of the case inside and out; and absorb those facts and applicable law to develop a cogent and winning argument.  In other words, we were giving the impression that to achieve remarkable legal advocacy, we must study the precedent, learn how to develop persuasive writing/arguing skills, and convince a judge and/or jury that our clients are right.  But what about understanding the human being(s) behind the legal problem?  What is the significance of transgressing past the “thinking like a lawyer” rhetoric to tap into our emotional capacity?

There are various definitions of the word empathy, but the one that resonates with me is as follows:

A feeling of emotion resonance between people; the ability to intuit the distress of another, or to feel a faint echo of their excitement, and therefore respond in ways that bring the person closer, rather than alienate them.

When dealing with clients, we must remember why they are seeking our help.  They may very well be facing the most daunting experience of their lives.  The legal process and the thought of standing in a courtroom in front of a judge may terrify them.  They may be grappling with an issue that could damage their reputation, wipe them out financially, or result in their children being taken away.  They may be dealing with an incapacitated family member or the passing of a loved one.  So, while the clients certainly need an astute legal advocate to support their cause, the exercise of walking in their shoes brings a human element to the relationship, which goes a long way toward making the clients feel valued, heard, and important. This applies not only when they are in the thick of the legal muck, but also when they attain successes in their journeys.

Ways in which to foster empathy with clients include the following:

  1. Let go of your perspective, as either a fellow human being or a lawyer, and see things from their point of view.
  2. Be fully attentive when they are speaking, listening not only to their words, but also to their tone and body language; give the clients your undivided attention.
  3. Contemplate to understand what they are telling you – not only from an intellectual point of view, but also emotionally.
  4. Validate emotions – do not dismiss or minimize them.
  5. Respect privacy.  Not only are we bound by the attorney/client relationship, it is important to build a rapport with the clients so they feel comfortable confiding in you as their legal cheerleader.
  6. Acknowledge what they have told you and let them know you understand.

Notably, exercising empathy encompasses many of the other JW Way principles: Listen Fully, Be Passionate about the Client Experience, Leave Your Ego at the Door, Demonstrate Respect, and Embrace Diversity, among others.  Practicing these fundamentals collectively has an impact on the clients’ experiences through which long-term relationships flourish.  Engaging in these practices allows the clients to feel heard, understood, validated, and confident in you as their lawyer.  It is critical to engage in these steps during all phases of the case, from the first phone call to the resolution of the clients’ issues.

Of course, empathy is not something that can be taught, but it can by honed by being mindful of its impact and its practice.  Because we presumably entered this profession to perpetuate justice and equity, we should be able to feel and show compassion for our fellow human beings as well.

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