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Health and wellbeing: Take care and feel better

Health and wellbeing: Take care and feel better

By Anne-Marie Cade

Health Wellbeing 

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Cultivating empathy helps lawyers improve mental health and wellbeing. 

Tips

Building empathy:

  • Be aware of your own perspective and be willing to shift your viewpoint. The focus cannot be entirely on what you want or need.
  • See things from the client’s perspective, step into the client’s shoes to gain real understanding of the client’s problem. 
  • Cultivate the skill of active listening, give clients your full attention and don’t be judgmental.
  • Cultivate your curiosity and ask questions to clarify as this shows you are genuinely interested. Ask what is it that the client wants to achieve? How are they feeling about the issue? What would they like from you?

Lawyers help clients with their problems and often have to deal with traumatic events. This can put lawyers at risk of carer fatigue or secondary PTSD which has an adverse effect on mental health. Lawyers try to block out these traumatising effects and might not receive any training on how to handle the emotional aspects of the practice of law. 

Research shows that lawyers are less inclined to enjoy interactions that involve the heart rather than the mind and some struggle in the area of empathy.1 Clients want to know that lawyers care. A lack of capacity to empathise with clients, counsel them and gain their trust takes its toll on lawyers, leading to disproportionately high levels of stress, anxiety, burnout and depression. A lawyer’s inability to understand the emotional undercurrents and connect with clients empathetically limits the skill to negotiate and resolve conflict effectively. Understanding how and why human beings act in a particular way greatly benefits lawyers and has a positive impact on lawyer wellbeing. Clients are often angry, upset and hurt when they see a lawyer. It is insufficient for lawyers to merely observe the emotions of their clients. They must hone the skill of empathy. When a lawyer demonstrates empathy it shows a deeper understanding of the client’s problem.

Empathy is the ability to see the world through the client’s eyes and can be used by lawyers to cut through the emotional reactions of the client which prevents them from seeing the situation clearly, understanding the legal implications of the issue and following legal advice. Demonstrating empathy makes lawyers more relatable to clients as they can better understand the client’s circumstances and provide some emotional support. It enables the lawyer to understand why the client may be feeling a particular way and they can demonstrate concern for the client’s welfare. 

It is about understanding the situation from the client’s perspective. It is a heightened emotional awareness of the client’s situation. When demonstrating empathy the lawyer can feel the pain of the client. Empathy is different to sympathy. Sympathy is about shared feelings and feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is about feeling for someone but at the same time preserving and maintaining professional objectivity. A lack of empathy is linked to low rates of mental health in the profession and therefore empathy plays a critical role in improving lawyer wellbeing.

Through the conscious use of empathy lawyers can deliver better results for clients particularly in adversarial situations. The lawyer is able to connect better with the client as well as the opponent and maybe dampen the ill will of the opposing side. Demonstrating empathy is key to building trust. When clients feel that they are understood they are more likely to confide in their lawyer and discuss sensitive issues, which in turn helps the lawyer work more efficiently and thrive in the work they do. Developing empathy is a critical skill that will help lawyers problem-solve creatively and boost happiness. Thinking in this way can positively change the way lawyers practise by putting clients at the centre of the process. This does not mean that the lawyer will sugar coat the problem and make it easier for the client, but it enables the lawyer to help the client through the process as the lawyer has a broader understanding of the client’s situation, their goals and what they ultimately want to achieve. 


Anne-Marie Cade is a lawyer, mediator/FDRP, divorce coach and parenting coordinator. She is an adjunct lecturer at the College of Law.

1. Michele DeStefano, Legal Upheaval and Dr Larry Richard “Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed”, 
Report to Legal Management.

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