Future Lawyers Should Be Screened and Trained for Empathy

08/27/2015 03:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2016

I recently read an article by Jill Suttie titled "Should We Train Doctors for Empathy?" The article states in pertinent part as follows:

"While we all want great medical care, we also want doctors who listen to us and convey empathy--an understanding of our feelings and concerns, reflected in a warm demeanor. This can help us to trust and feel connected to them. But that combination can be hard to find....

Following a wave of research suggesting the far-reaching benefits of emotionally attuned physicians, leaders [in the medical profession] have been exploring ways to infuse more empathy into the medical field. That includes re-evaluating the criteria for who should get admitted to medical school in the first place, and what they should learn while they're there. Their reforms raise questions about what constitutes quality medical care, how (and whether) it can be trained, and how much change is even possible in the American medical system today."

That article discussed the increase in satisfaction level and response from the patients of empathic physicians and the positive impact it had on the doctors themselves in that they "experience less stress, cynicism, and burnout than those with less empathy." It also mentioned that the current way in which doctors are trained causes an "erosion of empathy."

The comparison between medicine and law is striking in this regard.

Those who tend to be attracted to law school in the first place tend to be logical thinkers (rule oriented) and have low EQ levels. Moreover, the research indicates that the training students receive in law school also causes an "erosion of empathy." Furthermore, the more empathic students tend to drop out of law school at a much higher rate. Moreover, "lawyers with 'higher levels of resilience, empathy, initiative and sociability' are more likely to leave law practice than those with lower levels of those traits." In fact, "some US law firms have used this assessment metric (a scale to measure sociopaths on a scale of 0 to 40, with higher levels being extreme behaviour) in their hiring practice, preferring to employ lawyers with sociopathic index close to 29.

The public's perception of attorneys reflects this reality. In fact, in 2002, the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association prepared a report entitled, "Public Perceptions of Lawyers Consumer Research Findings". The findings were as follows: "The legal profession is among the least reputed institutions in American society.... Lawyers have a reputation for winning at all costs, and for being driven by profit and self-interest, rather than client interest." Lawyers "are believed to manipulate both the system and the truth.... Lawyers' tactics are said to border on the unethical, and even illegal. This idea does not just come from the media. Personal experiences bear it out." Sadly, the findings from all subsequent research has been very much the same.

Unfortunately, that's not all. The following quote from an article by J. Randolph Evans and Shari Klevens titled "Awareness can save lawyers in distress" that was published in the August 14, 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal is consistent with everything I have read on the subject:

"The numbers are shocking and sad. Although suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among all Americans, it is the third leading cause of death among attorneys, after cancer and heart disease. That's nearly six times the suicide rate for the general population....

[A]ttorneys as a group are very susceptible to succumbing to the pressures of a professional practice. Sometimes this means the abuse of narcotics and alcohol, depression and abandonment of clients and practices. Other times it means a state of ultimate hopelessness - suicide."

According to the American Bar Association, "it is estimated that 18 to 20 percent of the nation's lawyers abuse alcohol or drugs. By comparison, among the general population, including persons in other highly stressful professions such as physicians and pilots, the estimated rate of chemical abuse is at a much lower eight to ten percent."

While many law schools now offer courses in mediation, they tend to be elective courses and therefore many law students don't take them. Furthermore, merely teaching mediation techniques is inadequate because that alone doesn't help to increase the students' EQ levels. While emotional intelligence skills can be learned, those skills must be internalized to be effective. Otherwise, our habitual way of reacting or behaving during conflict will preempt any training we receive.

Social and emotional skills such as empathy are essential to conflict resolution. Therefore, those best suited to work in conflict resolution should have high EQ levels (Emotional Intelligence). People frequently confuse "conflict resolution or management" with "dispute resolution." Conflicts are emotional and disputes are fact-based.

Legal disputes are typically resolved through litigation or litigated negotiation, which are adversarial processes and thereby exacerbate the conflict in order to resolve the dispute. Since conflicts and disputes are often confused or intertwined, it is essential that lawyers be better trained in resolving, or at least de-escalating conflicts. People with low EQ levels can generally resolve disputes, but not the underlying conflicts.

People with high EQ levels have an increased self-awareness, which helps them to recognize and identify the way in which they react to things and is essential to self-management, which helps people to conduct themselves in a manner most suitable for achieving their desired outcomes. People with high EQ levels also tend to make fewer false assumptions as to people's underlying motives, are more empathic and thereby better able to consider various perspectives. Those with greater emotional intelligence are also more aware of how their actions impact the quality of interpersonal relationships involved and do their best not to sabotage those relationships.

Meanwhile, those attracted to the practice of law are known to have low EQ levels and law school tends to erode whatever empathy those students had at the outset.

At the 50th Anniversary Conference for AFCC (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts) in 2013, Paul J. De Muniz, Distinguished Jurist in Residence, Willamette University College of Law and Former Chief Justice, Oregon Supreme Court said the following: "We need law schools to start to train lawyers who are able to effectively meet the public's needs. This is not occurring anywhere yet."

Law schools must begin recognizing the damage that is being caused to interpersonal relationships and our overall society, due to the low EQ levels of those involved in the field of law and make a concerted effort to address this extremely serious problem. Law schools might learn a thing or two from the changes taking place in the education of future physicians. It would benefit everyone if "leaders [in the legal field began ] exploring ways to infuse more empathy into the [legal] field. That includes re-evaluating the criteria for who should get admitted to [law] school in the first place, and what they should learn while they're there. Their reforms [should] raise questions about what constitutes quality [legal] care, how (and whether) it can be trained, and how much change is even possible in the American [legal] system today."