The Empathy ImperativeIn the computer-driven future, lawyers with strong social skills will still have a useful place alongside their machines. It’s not too late to learn how to relate.

It’s been a fun fortnight watching the conventional wisdom swirl around the legal community. First there were reports of mounting anxiety among some law firm “leaders” about the coming impact of technology on the practice of law.

This is an understandable reaction, as those unidentified folk presumably sense that bits of their cheese are about to move or, worse, vanish.  But before anyone could get too distraught, Ryan McClead from Norton Rose Fulbright posted a chastening and corrective essay, “Stop the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Madness,” on the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog site. .  The end may be coming, but it’s not near; we don’t really know what it’s going to look like, but we can be confident that it won’t be described accurately in some overheated survey.

Amid these sounds and furies, there has been some sensible writing recently from Michael Mills, the wise and experienced head of Neota Logic, and Ken Grady, the GC turned SeyfarthLean evangelist. They argue calmly and hopefully that no matter what inroads technology may make into law practice, the core qualities of good lawyers will remain vital and necessary to clients. Mills summed up those traits under the rubric of “empathy.”  And Grady called for lawyers to emphasize their comparative advantage over computers by “leveraging their humanity.”

At least for the cherished minority of lawyers who have empathy and humanity to leverage, Mills and Grady bear promising news. For the rest, to paraphrase Cassius, the fault lies not in our chips but in ourselves. By now the diagnosis about the weak  emotional intelligence of lawyers is painfully familiar. For too many lawyers, empathy and its attendant characteristics do not appear to be second nature. Dr. Larry Richard, the lawyer turned psychologist, reports that on personality tests, lawyers on average score well below the general population on characteristics such as sociability, resilience, and empathy. Of course nearly all may outperform a personal computer whose only warmth comes from a wall socket. But to put this in blunt business terms, lawyers looking for a competitive advantage over their laptops will have some work to do.

The good news is that many lawyers can develop better interpersonal skills if they accept that they and their colleagues may have a problem, and then get some coaching. None of this requires giving up one’s hard-earned critical judgment or powers of analytical thinking. But in the name of relating to clients and other humans, it may mean learning, say, to listen. That will mean dropping the notion that every conversation is a joust for dominance or a rush to judgment. And it is likely to require asking for a little help from someone prepared to coach them deeper into sociability.

I suspect that the Rise of the Machines won’t be enough to push most partners into action. The threat isn’t imminent enough, and at this stage of their careers leaving their comfort zones may feel too threatening. In my view the focus would be better placed on the next generation, namely associates and law students. This has worked in medicine. A 2012 study from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School  shows that patients gave higher scores on measures of care to young residents who had completed a brief course in empathy skills. It has become fashionable now for law firms and schools to teach classes in business-related skills. It would be a small but valuable step to teach them how to listen and relate to their clients.

This may be more than a business matter. Richard, the psychologist, points to research that shows that people with better social skills not only tend to perform at a higher level but also seem to enjoy greater satisfaction in their lives. In a phrase, they are more likely to thrive. That tends not to be a particular concern of lawyers. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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