Emotion and lawyers

Elizabeth Rimmer - Emotion and lawyers

Some think there is no place for emotion in the law and believe emotions interfere with rational thinking. Law students are trained to ‘think like a lawyer’, suppressing and ignoring their emotions, which is not beneficial to wellbeing. In fact there is a huge body of scientific evidence which proves cognition and emotion are intertwined. If we consider that emotions affect your actions, decision-making, reasoning, thought processes and judgement, we can clearly see the relevance of emotion in the law.

We believe that often lawyers enter the workplace without the emotional competencies needed to meet the demands of an evolving profession. Emotional competency is about how we understand and handle our emotions, as well as identifying and interpreting emotional responses around us. These skills, often known as ‘soft skills’, are not traditionally valued or developed within legal education and training, which is focused on developing the ability to think, reason and analyse.

Providing legal professionals with resources to enable them to understand and develop key emotional competencies such as emotional self-awareness, self-reflection and better strategies for emotional self-regulation is one way to equip them more effectively for practice, enhance their wellbeing and potentially reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression. 

We want to encourage legal professionals to proactively recognise and identify factors that put a strain on their wellbeing at an early stage, rather than responding retrospectively once issues with mental health and wellbeing have arisen. We know from our work in supporting lawyers for over 20 years how difficult it is for lawyers to admit they are struggling with the pressures of work, which often leads them to seek help when they are nearing crisis.

As well as personal responsibility for emotional competency, we would like to see the profession as a whole taking action on this issue. The Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce – a cross-profession taskforce set up in 2016 to promote and support good mental health and wellbeing across the legal community – recently held a special roundtable event on emotional competency. The panel, made up of representatives from academia and regulation, drew the following conclusions.

Train students in emotional competency

Emotional competency can be – and should be – taught on the curriculum in law school. Many graduates are ill-prepared for the workplace and equipping them with the right skills to manage anxiety, stress, the expectations of clients’ relationships with colleagues and working with vulnerable clients could mean a lower drop out rate in the early years of practice, and also support better lawyer wellbeing. 

Wellbeing is a leadership duty

Senior professionals need to take a leadership role on the issue of wellbeing in order to make a shift towards a more positive working culture in the law. Leaders need to be more open, normalising discussions about mental health and wellbeing by talking about their own experiences and how they overcame difficult situations.

For many people the way they are treated at work and the behaviour and role-modelling of their managers makes an enormous difference to how they feel about themselves and their work. Mentoring and ongoing training for junior lawyers is essential and supervision could have a mandatory wellbeing element.

Greater collaboration is needed between regulators and academia

Although there are emotional competencies implicit in regulatory standards, these could be made more explicit. This would then act as a ‘washback’ to the academic institutions who would then be required to teach their students in emotional competency. Greater collaboration between academic institutions and regulation is needed to decide how this could be taken forward.

What is LawCare doing on this issue?

We are collaborating with the Open University to develop and pilot a range of online resources to proactively encourage legal professionals to engage with issues around recognising and regulating their emotions. The goal is to foster enhanced wellbeing and to support legal professionals to not just survive, but to also thrive, within a challenging work environment. 

In addition to providing resources aimed at individual practitioners, the resources we are developing will include a tool kit for employers, to encourage positive organisational and cultural change in the legal workplace.

These resources will be available later in the year, but in the meantime if you need to talk about any personal or professional issue call the LawCare helpline on 0800 279 6888, 365 days a year. Additional information, resources and factsheets are available at www.lawcare.org.uk 

Elizabeth Rimmer is the chief executive of LawCare, the charity that supports mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession.

You can contact the LawCare helpline on 0800 279 6888.

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