April 2024

Cultivating emotional intelligence in the legal profession

By Kendra Brodin

The concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) has its roots in the early 20th century, but it was psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer who first coined the term in 1990. They defined it as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

But it was Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ that brought the concept into the mainstream, highlighting its importance in personal and professional success. Since then, the study of EQ (sometimes referred to as EI) has expanded rapidly; research has shown its impact on various aspects of life, including workplace performance, leadership, and mental health.

For lawyers, the relevance of emotional intelligence and emotional regulation cannot be overstated. The legal profession is inherently emotional—we deal with clients facing stressful and life-changing situations, work in fast-paced and deadline-driven practices, interact with bright and intense colleagues on a daily basis, and feel that we need to be at the top of our game all the time. Lawyers must navigate these emotional landscapes with skill and empathy, all while maintaining their own emotional balance. 

High EQ allows lawyers to understand and manage their emotions and those of their clients and colleagues, leading to more effective communication, better decision-making, and stronger relationships. The capacity to regulate one’s own emotions, an important component of EQ, is particularly crucial in high-stakes situations such as courtroom battles, intense negotiations, strategic conversations, or emotional interpersonal exchanges where the ability to remain calm and focused can make the difference between a positive and a negative outcome.

Emotional intelligence and emotional regulation are vital skills for lawyers, enabling them to navigate the complexities of their profession with resilience and effectiveness. In such a high-stress environment, understanding and managing emotions is not just advantageous; it’s crucial to success and well-being.

EQ: The four quadrants

EQ comprises four primary components, often referred to as the four quadrants:

• Self-awareness: This is the ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and values. For lawyers, self-awareness is essential for recognizing internal triggers and biases that can impact decision-making and client/colleague interactions. For example, a lawyer who is aware of their tendency to become angry or defensive in certain situations can work on strategies to remain open and receptive to feedback. Self-awareness also includes accurately identifying the emotion one is feeling as well as gauging the intensity of that emotion.

• Self-management: This is also called “emotional regulation,” and it involves “right-sizing” one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, particularly in stressful situations. Lawyers with strong self-management skills can maintain their composure and think clearly under pressure, enabling them to make rational decisions and avoid impulsive actions and reactions. A lawyer who can manage their frustration during a difficult negotiation, for instance, is more likely to remain focused and find constructive solutions.

• Social awareness: This is sometimes called “empathy” for short, and it encompasses understanding the emotions and perspectives of others. In the legal field, social awareness is crucial for empathizing with clients, working effectively with and leading colleagues, understanding the motivations of opposing parties, and effectively navigating courtroom dynamics. A lawyer who can accurately read the emotions of a jury, for example, can tailor their arguments to resonate more effectively.

• Relationship management: This component focuses on fostering and maintaining positive relationships, using self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness to build strong, healthy relationships and interact effectively with others. For lawyers, relationship management skills are essential in building trust with clients, collaborating with colleagues, and negotiating successfully with adversaries. A lawyer who can communicate empathetically is more likely to build strong, lasting professional relationships.

Developing emotional regulation skills

Emotional regulation, an integral part of EQ, is the ability to pause between experiencing an emotion and responding to it. This skill enables lawyers to control their thoughts, feelings, and actions in alignment with their long-term objectives and values. Given the demanding nature of legal work, emotional regulation is particularly vital for maintaining composure and making rational decisions under pressure.

Lawyers and legal professionals can develop effective emotional regulation skills through various strategies.

Cultivate self-awareness. Recognize and label your emotions without judgment. Understanding how your emotions influence your thoughts and actions is crucial for effective regulation. Reflecting on past emotional experiences can help identify patterns and triggers, enabling you to anticipate and manage your emotional responses more effectively.

Practice mindfulness. Engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation or deep breathing exercises to calm your mind and stay present. Mindfulness enhances emotional awareness, allowing you to choose how to respond to your emotions consciously and intentionally. It helps in reducing stress and improving focus, both of which are essential for lawyers.

Consider other perspectives. Step back and try to view a situation from different angles. This can provide a broader understanding and help you respond more thoughtfully. Considering how others might interpret the situation can offer valuable insights and improve your ability to empathize and communicate effectively.

Practice adaptable thinking. Challenge your initial reactions and consider alternative interpretations of events. This flexible approach can help you respond more effectively and avoid jumping to conclusions. It encourages open-mindedness and adaptability, both of which are crucial in the ever-changing legal landscape.

Seek support. If you find it challenging to regulate your emotions, consider seeking help from a mental health professional or reaching out to Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL). Therapy and professional support can provide you with strategies and tools to manage your emotions effectively. Confiding in trusted friends, family, or colleagues can also offer valuable perspectives and emotional relief. Building a support network is essential for emotional well-being.

Emotional intelligence and emotional regulation are truly essential skills for lawyers, enabling them to navigate the complexities of their profession with resilience and effectiveness. By developing these skills, lawyers can enhance their self-awareness, manage stress more effectively, and build stronger relationships. These capabilities are not just tools for sustainable professional success; they are vital components of well-rounded and emotionally healthy lawyers and leaders. 

Kendra Brodin Taft HeadshotKENDRA BRODIN is the founder & CEO of EsquireWell, a leading lawyer well-being and performance consulting firm, providing education, strategic guidance, coaching, and online learning tools to help lawyers be happier, healthier, and more successful. 

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