Empathy 101 for Lawyers: Why Understanding Your Clients Is More Important Now Than Ever

Like any crisis, COVID-19 exposes our vulnerabilities, turning up the heat on processes that were simmering before it set in. The impact on the legal industry—like every other—has been notable. Law firms have had to become tech-competent overnight, working remotely has become the norm even for those firms that were hesitant about implementing such programs, and layoffs and salary reductions are underway at even some of the largest and wealthiest of firms. Even before the crisis, client-side pressures for new billing models and reduced rates were mounting, and in-house counsel began to show a strong preference for reducing the amount of work outsourced to outside legal counsel. According to the 2020 Altman Weil survey, “Nearly 7 in 10 law firms have seen their corporate clients pull work in-house and most of the remaining firms said they see it coming.” With belts tightening, there’s no reason to think they won’t be choosier now. Indeed, as the ongoing recession shifts client needs and negatively impacts spending capabilities, we can expect in-house lawyers to focus first on keeping themselves busy, passing to outside counsel only that work they truly cannot handle in-house. Parenthetically, we can also expect that, for the work they do send outside, they’ll look for considerable price relief. 

COVID-19 has, in many ways, provided us, as lawyers within law firms, with an excellent opportunity to practice empathy—which is one of our most valuable professional assets, and what the world needs more of. As someone who cares an extraordinary amount, I am somewhat comforted by the fact that in this crisis of care, we are all caring so much.  Everything feels especially poignant now. Amidst the uncertainty and fear, the salary reductions, and the layoffs, there is also unity and compassion. This crisis exposes our shortcomings and lays bare what we have pushed under the rug for too long—namely, that we lawyers are complex creatures with needs. I have been comforted by how many of my colleagues and peers have risen to the challenge, embracing it and holding space for each other. As stated by Jennifer Detrani back in April: “There is a sense of interconnectedness that brings comfort to those of us who tend to overthink things (read: every lawyer ever). An acknowledgment that we are in this together—whatever “this” turns out to be when it’s all said and done…I have seen lawyers draw upon an attribute that unfortunately, the legal world doesn’t always emphasize or value but that should always have been there all along—compassion.”  Indeed, pro bono has increased. There are acts of kindness, charity, and volunteerism. There is a heightened sense of personal and social responsibility. Uncomfortable socio-political conversations are happening now everywhere we look. Working from home has gone from a nice-to-have perk to a must, deepening conversations about work-life balance. Working away from the office has catalyzed conversations about the need for expensive offices. It has allowed for new interactions outside the shadows of office culture, which is less than ideal for many employees. 

Empathy as a Professional Advantage

As our private lives have literally become exposed to one another, it has been heartening to see each other’s softer sides—the pressure to “keep up appearances” diminished—there is nothing left to hide. We join video conferences from home—this gives context, warmth, and a real human element to us. Emotion is no longer unprofessional—it is part and parcel of who we are, especially as lawyers, no matter what practice area. We are first and foremost advocates, and empathy is our most valuable asset. What are the useful lessons in humanity that we have learned in the past few months, and is this increased compassion a boon for business? Could changed practices in the wake of COVID-19 lead the way forward? Yes. 

A prime example of this lies in taking a closer look at what in-house counsel look for in their outside counsel, understanding what turns them off, and what engages them and keeps them loyal. In the business setting where money is king, it’s tempting to think that what’s most important to in-house counsel is cheaper rates, but it’s not. Surveys indicate that in-house counsel want outside counsel who provide thoughtful answers and valuable insight, lawyers who understand their businesses, and anticipate their needs. In-house counsel, like other clients, don’t just want a lawyer, they want a business advisor, someone who understands their concerns and needs and puts them first, fiercely advocating for them. They want tech-savviness, diversity of views, timeliness, dedication, and responsiveness, and for their lawyers to be client-centric, reliable, and personable. Indeed, successful lawyering and mastering the art of negotiation requires being able to put yourself in others’ shoes—to understand not only your clients’ motivations but also those of counter-parties and their clients. During my six years as a fund formation associate, I learned firsthand that pleasant negotiations can mean shorter negotiations, and shorter negotiations make for leaner bills & fewer delays, that transactional lawyers should be in the business of facilitating transactions, not “winning.” An agreement should end like a very good expensive meal—on a high note with a good taste in your mouth.

How to Make Room for Empathy and Connection in Your Legal Practice

  • Remember that you’re only human. Use technological tools like ZERØ to offload administrative tasks that wear you down, steal your time, and rob you of your energy and cognitive capacity. You’ll be amazed at how much more patient and available—cognitively, mentally, emotionally—you are with less of an administrative burden weighing you down.
  • Be present. When we’re analyzing the past or anticipating the future, we’re not always engaged in the present. This may lead us to miss whatever or whoever is right in front of us—and this can cause us to make mistakes, or work inefficiently, spending precious time making up for whatever we missed. Give people your undivided attention. 
  • Listen. Understanding requires that we stay open and listen. You might think you know what your client or boss is about to say and drift off in thought, and this may lead you to miss out on an essential piece of information or keep you from understanding your client’s motivations and concerns. 
  • Be practical. The right answer might not be the best answer—and vice versa. It’s easy to get carried away in legal negotiations—citing precedent and getting bogged down in theoretical corners. Ask yourself how likely or easy will it be for this arrangement or mechanism to play out in practice? 
  • Communicate succinctly. Law school is one thing, and legal practice is another. Law professors value nuanced comprehensive answers. But clients don’t want a 10-page memo—they want a bottom line and how you got there, in language that’s easy to understand. 
  • Get to know them. Ask: How you can improve and how they’re doing. Remember that trust isn’t built overnight, and clients want an attorney they can trust. 
  • Be patient and gracious. Sometimes clients may not show gratitude as you’d like, or contradict themselves at every time, or seem utterly oblivious to the late nights you’re putting in. It’s easy to feel rejected or hold a grudge. But remembering that your client is probably under an immense amount of pressure makes room for understanding and compassion, for not taking things personally, and this lights the way forward for a better relationship and better counsel. 


  • Amy Sapan

    Originally from New York and based out of Tel Aviv since late 2010, Amy Sapan has over eight years of corporate legal experience, principally in the fields of high-tech and private investment fund formation. She has previously held positions at Amit, Pollak, Matalon & Co. and Yigal Arnon, two of Israel’s leading law firms, as well as Dickstein Shapiro LLP in New York City, now defunct. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and her B.A. in International & Area Studies summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the NY State Bar and the Israeli Bar Association. She is passionate about gardening, art, craft, dance, swimming, ecology and movement.