Why Lawyers Should Have More Emotional Intelligence

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on January 26, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Canadian Lawyer magazine suggested last month that lawyers should have emotional intelligence -- and especially corporate counsel. There's quite a debate going on about whether lawyers should even use their emotions (unrelated to a separate debate about whether lawyers have emotions).

Well, it's either a bunch of granola-and-Birkenstocks nonsense or it's something that we should have been paying attention to all along.

Why Aren't You Synergizing?

Like all buzzwords, you're correct to be wary of "emotional intelligence." Invented by psychologists and popularized by a 1990 article in The New York Times, emotional intelligence is the awareness of one's own emotions and the emotions of others. Basically, we live and work in the presence of others, and our success shouldn't be based just on how smart we are, but also on how we interact with others.

You might not be aware of emotional intelligence, but you probably notice it the most when someone doesn't have very much of it -- for example, an opposing counsel who refuses to budge even on courtesy requests. Or one who objects to everything at a deposition as cumulative and irrelevant. Maybe you've been in the presence of in-house lawyers whose first response to anything is "No."

Yeah, that's a lack of emotional intelligence -- which is found even among very smart people. Norma Formanek, general counsel of Trilliant Networks in California, told Canadian Lawyer that she "has met her share of 'top-tier, brand-name' lawyers whose career opportunities have been limited because of their inability to 'deal with people in an emotionally mature, reasonable, and constructive way.'"

Have a Little Heart

You might work in house, but that doesn't mean you have to act like Doctor House. As ABA's Law Practice magazine observed in 2007, "Studies at Harvard and elsewhere have shown that high IQ does not necessarily translate into high productivity, while the ability to 'get along with people' has been found to be more critical than intelligence, decisiveness or job expertise in achieving bottom-line results." Makes sense, right? Would you really want to work with someone who's smart, but tactless and cold?

Problems can often be solved even before they start with a little bit of massaging and the "counselor" part of being a lawyer. If an employee stomps into the office with a complaint, don't immediately raise the hair on the back of your neck and get into fighting mode. Be calm and let the employee talk. This lets you suss out the employee's state of mind and might actually calm the employee down.

Was it a misperception? A misunderstanding? Maybe the employee just wants to be listened to. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, "You can hear a lot just by listening."

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