Love your lawyer (part 2): Emotional labor of lawyers

Love Your Lawyer Day prompted the question: what makes clients love their lawyers? Client satisfaction is one way to gauge clients’ love. As addressed in an earlier post, client satisfaction depends on the lawyer’s competence and expertise. But client satisfaction is also intertwined with how the client experiences the process.

The client’s desire for a satisfying experience raises an aspect of lawyering that deserves more attention: emotional labor. Emotional labor is a common practice across service professions and “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Emotional labor generally occurs in personal interactions such as face-to-face or voice-to-voice moments. The person doing the labor displays emotion to influence the client or customer, and that display of emotion follows the rules of the profession. (The source here is Sofia Yakren’s article Lawyer as Emotional Laborer in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, which is this post’s major source along with Joy Kadowaki’s Maintaining Professionalism: Emotional Labor Among Lawyers as Client Advisors in the International Journal of the Legal Profession.)

The concept of emotional labor was originally formulated and studied by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who focused on flight attendants in the early 1980s. Emotional labor has been in the news with the rise of Uber and other on-demand service where customer ratings mean a lot. As reported in the Harvard Business Review Blog, “on-demand workers end up performing outsize amounts of what sociologists call ‘emotional labor,’ or expressive work to make the customer experience a positive one so that users come back to the platform.”

Lawyers may not use platforms like Uber apps (not much yet anyway), but Yelp ratings are important and sometimes problematic for many. And whether a lawyer gets clients from Yelp or a casual conversation at the Yale Club, lawyers do perform emotional labor. A common theme of all emotional-labor literature is the tools workers use for performing it:

  • deep acting
  • surface acting
  • detachment

Deep acting means trying to make yourself experience the emotions you are displaying. Surface acting means using techniques to fake emotions. (This can be done in good faith to help the client, or in bad faith as a sort of cover-up.) And, as Joy Kadowski found in surveying consumer-oriented lawyers, detachment means dealing with repugnant clients by “taking emotion entirely out of the interaction with the client, reducing the relationship to one that is ‘strictly business.’”

The emotional-labor literature does not paint a particularly optimistic picture. When professionals genuinely change their feelings or align them with their actions in deep acting, the costs of emotional labor go down. But surface acting and detachment are associated with emotional dissonance, which leads to a host of problems from addiction to depression to general alienation.

Another question is, who is emotional labor for, anyway? If the focus of emotional labor is on creating a comfortable emotional state in the client, then perhaps it’s for the benefit of the client. Emotional labor to keep the client as comfortable with the legal process as possible under the circumstances could indeed help clients love their lawyers.

But emotional labor also follows predictable rules defined by the profession, and part of what professionalism does is to “convince, cajole and persuade employees, practitioners, and other workers to perform and behave in ways which the organization or the institution deem to be appropriate, effective, and efficient.” (This is Kadowaki quoting sociologist Julia Evetts.) The sociologists coined the term “feeling rules.” And feeling rules are not just for the benefit of the client in the relationship; as Kadowaki points out, “In some cases [emotional labor] is done for the benefit of the attorney-client relationship, but at other times emotional labor is used to protect the emotional state of the attorney, and thus his or her performance of professionalism.”

What can be done to minimize the consequences of dissonance for lawyers while preserving what clients need? Dismissive attitudes might say the profession should self-select: if practicing law is so dissonant and painful, then don’t do it. But that’s not a very good answer, as Yakren points out: “Do we want to eliminate healthy self-doubt as a check on professional conduct?” No. Moreover, “constructing a profession comprised of a particular type of thinker could stifle creative solutions to complex problems.” (And thus it could make clients individually and collectively not love their lawyers even more than they already don’t love them.)

Solutions Yakren poses include expl0ring and teaching lawyers more about deep acting (which helps clients just as much if not more than surface acting and detachment, and emotionally costs less for the lawyer doing it); encouraging more autonomy for lawyers to exercise their consciences; and critiquing formalistic notions of professionalism and ethics to recognize the importance of context. Similarly Kadowaki points out that professionalism is far more complex and interconnected than any formalistic system can account for: “While the lawyers [interviewed in her study] defined professionalism as requiring the suppression of emotion, their description of their actual practice detailed significant emotional labor efforts and a much more nuanced negotiation of emotional expression.”

Sources:

Joy Kadowaki, Maintaining Professionalism: Emotional Labor Among Lawyers as Client Advisors in the International Journal of the Legal Profession (2015), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09695958.2015.1071257

Sofia Yakren, Lawyer as Emotional Laborer, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform (2008), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2602520

Dan Defoe, Emotional Intelligence and Selecting Personnel Lawyers for High Emotional Labor Jobs, Psycholawlogy, July 15, 2016, http://www.psycholawlogy.com/2016/07/15/emotional-intelligence-and-selecting-personnel-lawyers-for-high-emotional-labor-jobs/

 

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