IBA Conference: ‘Lawyers just don’t do emotion’, says leading behavioural expert

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By Polly Botsford in Rome on

Law is the last profession to embrace emotional intelligence

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Most professions and sectors have recognised the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) for individuals in their working lives, US author and expert, Ronda Muir, explained in a session at the International Bar Association’s (IBA) annual conference yesterday. She told the audience: “Even accountants have started to be educated in emotional intelligence. But lawyers just don’t do emotion.”

Muir’s premise is backed up by research which has shown that lawyers tend to have high IQs (scoring around 115) but lower EIs of around 85. Muir continued:

“As a profession, we are low on EI and lawyers don’t like that fact. Worse still, often the people around us that we consider less smart, come higher on EI: the receptionist at the firm, or a witness you might be dealing with. This is really hard [for lawyers] to accept.”

But having EI has enormous upsides, Muir told the audience of lawyers from around the world at the IBA’s annual mingle-athon: “For lawyers, EI will improve cognitive functions and the ability to make decisions, getting and keeping clients, teamwork. It will help you outsmart machines, it lowers liability, improves mental and physical health.”

In fact, Muir, who has published a book Beyond smart: lawyering with emotional intelligence, cites research which also links EI and profitability; the survey looked at the performance of business consultants (there is as yet no research on lawyers on this point) in the workplace alongside an assessment of their EI which showed a staggering 200% higher profitability where the EI is higher.

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Clients need good EI from their lawyers, says Muir: “If you look at what it is that makes clients like their lawyers, it is how you felt about a case that mattered, not so much whether you won or lost, or by how much. A lawyer-client relationship is a felt experience. A client wants to know that you can be trusted.” She adds:

“The most common reason clients fire their lawyers is because they are unresponsive and have personality problems.”

Top tips for lawyers to learn how to be more emotionally intelligent? “You have to start by understanding your own emotions, learning to recognise how you are feeling and how other people are feeling. We call this ’emotional awareness’,” Muir says. “Then you’ll learn emotional empathy, going inside your own emotional experience and relating that to others’ experiences.”

But that is not the end of it, explains Muir: “You build on these by achieving a level of ’emotional understanding’ — why do I feel this way? What will happen if I don’t do anything about what I am feeling? Last but not least, there is ’emotional management’, if you are emotionally aware yourself and are aware of other people’s experiences then you have the tools to manage your emotions.”

There are some short-cuts too. Often one can recognise and manage emotions when something happens such as a difficult meeting or a confrontational phone call by simply “counting to ten”, says Muir. “Just take a few moments to let the emotional responses in your body settle, and give them a label. It helps to have a good vocabulary of your emotions: [for example] that made me ashamed or angry.”

Law firms are, however, beginning to embrace EI. Legal Cheek has previously reported on Pinsent Masons which introduced EI training for its freelance lawyers. Earlier this year, news came out that law firms are actively looking for specific human traits alongside core skills in their candidates including emotional intelligence, a good “attitude” and the ability to take personal responsibility for things.

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