How sensitivity makes you a better lawyer

*Originally posted on Aclara Design*

I had a memorable court hearing during my first year working as a lawyer. It was a witness hearing, and one of the employees of the opposing party was being heard by the court. At some point, the witness asked for a short break. It was denied. A few minutes later, he asked again, it was denied again. I noticed he was acting very nervous.

Suddenly, he jumped up, ran to the door and said he needed to use the bathroom. I could tell it was already too late, looking at his chair.

Both my client and the opposing party were large corporate clients. It was a professional dispute about the payment of damages.

It’s about people

It can be easy to forget that every dispute, every legal issue, even the most professional, is about people. I've seen experienced directors, managers, and in-house counsel suffer enormously because of the stress and responsibility that came with dealing with a dispute or other legal problem. That’s why I believe being sensitive to people’s needs is one of the most important qualities you can have as a lawyer.

One of my strong qualities as a lawyer was my sensitivity, although I would never have described it as such. Being sensitive doesn’t sound cool, professional, or hardcore, does it? So why would you claim you’re a sensitive lawyer?

Being highly sensitive

One in five people are highly sensitive. That’s an academically researched statistic. Being highly sensitive differentiates you from the other 4/5 in many ways. It means you are more susceptible to sensory stimuli (smell, touch, sight). You notice more details than other people and have a lively imagination. You are more aware of other people’s emotions. It also means you process information more deeply, so even after a conversation, event or other experience, your mind is still processing everything you saw, heard or felt.

Non-verbal cues

Sensitivity makes you better attuned to non-verbal communication. I’ve found that it has helped me to read people’s communicative cues during negotiations. I can properly listen to my clients and figure out what they need – not just in terms of legal advice, but how they want to talk and connect with you. It has also helped me empathise with my clients. Not in an overly emotionally involved way, but just in a way that helps me be a better listener by tuning into the emotional cues people give. Instead of hyper-focusing on legal issues only, it enables you to zoom out to look at the bigger picture.

Intuition and law?

Because sensitivity means reading other people’s signals better, I’ve learned to trust my intuition more. Sometimes, little things can give away people’s intentions. That’s especially helpful when you sense someone is lying or if you need to influence and convince a court.

It also makes it easier to work with others. Even though I hated (and still hate) working with dominant, aggressive people, I collaborated easily with most former colleagues at law firms. In fact, many of them have become my clients now. My perspective is that being empathetic and being able to read non-verbal cues make me better at understanding others' needs and how to make a situation work for the both of us. That helps build relationships.

Processing time

Sensitivity can be challenging too, though – I generally need more time and mental space when getting into new topics. Because I process information more deeply, I prefer to dig deep into something before having an opinion or solution. I value thorough work over instant response. And meaningful debate over just dominating a conversation.

Sensitivity and design

I currently work as a legal designer. As a designer, empathising with others is at the core of what I do. It’s where I find true value. The more you connect with people, the more valuable information you find. The more you can fine-tune your product or service towards your clients’ needs. It’s often in subtle things, like an emotion hidden in a quick comment. Genuine interest and sensing what’s important to people is gold. That’s what human-centred design is all about.

What if, during your next call, you reduce the time you spend talking by 50% and listen instead? What cues is that person giving away? Are they using any emotional words? If you consider a conversation as an exercise in empathy, I’m sure you’ll discover things you wouldn’t typically have.

If you’re sensitive, that’s your superpower. It will help you help others better. And your legal services will be more about actual people’s needs because of it.