Emotion is involved in all aspects of legal practice

Dr Emma Jones of The Open University suggests that emotional competence has a vital place in a modern legal profession. Here's a summary of her compelling argument, delivered at a recent CILEx Regulation roundtable.

Emma’s research with legal professionals has found that emotion is involved in all aspects of practice. Not just where you might expect to find it – such as in family law, asylum cases, or cases involving abuse – but also in what seem like ‘unemotive’ areas of the law.

One legal professional said:

“I have to be able to go from one office or one room 20 minutes ago talking about a completely acrimonious litigation matter to then be sensitive to deal with someone whose wife has just died two days ago. You know, you have to. And when you’re doing that for eight hours a day, it’s impossible to switch off. You’ve had the whole emotional circle going on in your head.”

Emotional competence is about understanding, acknowledging and using emotions. This involves:

  • identifying emotions: a lot of legal training can be about suppressing emotions rather than acknowledging them, but this is the first step to emotional competence
  • understanding emotions: understanding emotional cues and why you’re feeling a certain way will help you deal with the effectively
  • managing emotions: while crying in front of an emotional client is clearly not appropriate, empathy will help you relate to them and develop a rapport – which helps you translate their needs into the legal issues involved
  • using emotions: experiencing an emotional reaction can make you questions things that perhaps pure reason wouldn’t. An unexplained ‘niggling doubt’ can turn out to be a sign of something more significant and make you question things more carefully

Emotional competence therefore plays a central role in legal practice. Perhaps most obviously, it’s connected to client care. But it’s also connected to the ability to work with other people – either as a leader or as a peer. A legal education may teach you about the law, but it doesn’t teach you to be a manager or a leader or even how to work as part of a team.

Emotional competence is also connected to productivity, efficiency and wellbeing. For many legal professionals, the way they’re currently working isn’t healthy. They report higher levels of anxiety, stress and depression than the general population and often only realise what’s happening when they’re stressed or burnt out. We need to stop people getting to that stage by teaching them to understand the role that emotion plays in their working lives and deal with that healthily. This will help them build a sustainable legal career.

So how do we do this? Activities like yoga days and mindfulness sessions are great but they’re not enough in themselves. We should look into integrating knowledge and understanding of emotion into the core subjects that make up a legal education. Even the driest subject is brought to life when you start to question the narrative behind the situation.

We should also build reflective practice into working lives. What emotion was involved there? How did it affect my wellbeing? This is an ongoing process, and it’s perhaps where CPD can come in. It would be interesting to know how many legal professionals take a course or module on wellbeing and emotional competence. Education standards have a part to play too. To have regulators who buy into the fact that emotion is important will feed into a wider cultural change.

It’s important to say that none of this is odd, new or different. Emotions are there already and we’re already handling them – even if that’s by suppressing or ignoring them. Making them a more explicit part of our working lives would be good for our wellbeing and for the profession as a whole.


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