“What does it mean to be a good lawyer?” Thus begins The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law by Douglas O. Linder & Nancy Levit (Oxford 2014). The introduction assures readers there will not be chapters such as “The Good Lawyer Uses Proper Citation Format.” (Why not? asks the legal writing professor.)
Instead, The Good Lawyer explores empathy, courage, willpower, valuing others in the legal community, intuition as well as deliberation, realistic thinking, the pursuit of justice, integrity, and persuasion. Its final chapter addresses the difficulty of all of these in the current legal climate.
The book is largely aspirational but delves into skills and techniques. Its first chapter—”The Good Lawyer Is Empathetic”—would be valuable to any lawyer who wants to be a better listener.
Empathy has been defined as “our ability to identify what somebody else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts or feelings with an appropriate emotion.”
And what are the actual benefits of a lawyer’s being empathetic?
First, empathy enables you to acknowledge and respect other people’s thoughts, so they feel valued. Second, empathy substantially reduces the likelihood of miscommunications that can lead to wasted effort and counterproductive results. Third, as you become more aware of other people’s feelings, you more readily assess their feelings toward you and can make adjustments to smooth things over when necessary.* . . . Fourth, having walked inside another’s skin, you’ll be better able to compellingly tell that person’s story, should the time and place arise for it.
*The omitted portion of the quote says this: “When others think you’re being a jerk, at least you know it soon enough to stop your jerk-like behavior and apologize.”
I am well aware of the sentiment that being a jerk is necessary or even desirable at times, as a way of serving a client’s interests. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that’s not the agenda of Linder and Levit. In their chapter on serving the true interests of clients, they walk through various roles a lawyer may serve: helping the client win; being a “mere tool” of the client’s autonomy; or essentially telling the client what to do based on the lawyer’s legal expertise.
Their recommended approach is none of these in isolation. Instead they embrace more of a collaborative deliberation: “The most demanding and also the most rewarding function that lawyers perform is to help their clients decide what it is that they really want, to help them make up their minds as to what their ends should be” (quoting Anthony Kronman). Linder and Levit acknowledge that “many forces today conspire to limit opportunities for lawyers and clients to enter into deep moral conversations, as friends might do.”
They go on to discuss specific communication techniques to help lawyers learn more about their clients’ interests in meaningful conversations. For example lawyers can frame conversations in terms of “we” (i.e. the lawyer and client together). Lawyers can ask clients who else would be affected by various approaches, and how those others might respond.
These suggested techniques are valuable, yet perhaps meager given what it takes to forge a truly collaborative relationship and be someone’s friend in a moral sense. On this point and others, the book was (lightly) critiqued by David Lat in the Wall Street Journal as being better at issue-spotting than at deeply diving into practical solutions.
The issues to be spotted include a number of tough questions. For example, are empathetic lawyers born, or can they be made? Linder and Levit review psychological literature showing that empathy can be taught in the sense that people can get better at recognizing emotions. The evidence is weaker for the teachability of the empathetic response. A checklist on “How to Make the Most of Your Empathy” (page 17) would be a good primer for new lawyers, or for more experienced lawyers who want to work on making a better connection with clients. The book also cites the scholarship of Kristin Gerdy and Ian Gallacher on incorporating empathy into legal education and teaching students how to “think like a non-lawyer.”
Another tough issue both individually and socially is whether empathy can actually be harmful. Highly empathetic people may burn out and run from extremely painful situations, or may cross ethical boundaries to help those with whom they empathize. (In raising the topic of whether judges should be empathetic, the book cites Justice Blackmun’s “Poor Joshua!” dissent, recently in the news again after the death of Joshua DeShaney at age 36.)
The chapter on persuasion features the book’s most specific treatment of listening and lawyering:
Listening and interpreting body language, two skills that allow us to understand—and then better influence—the thinking and emotion of others, receive nothing like the attention each deserves. Only by listening to a client can a lawyer understand what the client wants and develop a theme for a story that might help the client her goal, and listening carefully to a judge’s questions or remarks is essential to the process of addressing any concerns the judge might have with your argument. People, of course, send signals with their bodies, not just with their words, and being attentive to the body language of clients, witnesses, jurors, and judges also can be critical to a lawyer’s success. Sometimes lawyers are so focused on covering each of twenty points on the outline of an argument that they don’t see the judge or juror stifling a yawn, raising eyebrows, or crossing arms; these are all signs that the lawyers are going seriously off track and need to change course. Defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, describing the work of another lawyer he admired, said that he kept his eyes “ever on his audience.” Bailey continued, “The slightest quizzical brow, a mere change of impression of a single juror, these would be a sign from which he could shift and bear down on a point, paraphrase it if he thought the first shot hadn’t got through, or shift his topic if he thought attention was starting to drift.”
There is no chapter titled “The Good Lawyer Listens.” Yet The Good Lawyer advocates that the good lawyer does listen. Listening helps lawyers understand clients and make them feel valued. If that’s not enough, listening also helps lawyers figure out what to say.