• Elina

Leading Law Firms With Empathy and Self-Awareness

Conversations around attorney well-being are abuzz, and the voices have increased in volume, finally shifting from a low hum to a loud siren. As I recently pointed out in Positive Psychology for Lawyers, lawyers’ focus on clients' problems and potential pitfalls create a “negativity bias." This is significant as it can impact their personal lives and well-being. Compounding these problems, law firms don’t always embrace supportive cultures to counteract some of these structural professional concerns. But I believe positive change is occurring.


In the eyes of many lawyers, billable hours are no longer the only measure of success and it is no longer a sign of virtue for lawyers to burn themselves out pulling all-nighters and eighty-hour workweeks. In fact, the financial and professional costs associated with burnout, disciplinary charges linked to poor mental health, low engagement, and high turnover are starting to come into focus,. Now, more than ever, law firms need strong leadership to pave the way for the future of a happy, healthy, and successful profession.


Developing leadership has not always been one of the primary goals of law firms. Typically, stepping into law firm leadership positions requires one to improve their skills and develop into an excellent lawyer. You master your craft, serve your clients, and get promoted. You must remain an excellent lawyer, but at the same time, your role evolves, requiring you to manage, encourage, and inspire others.


This is where many fall short because law firms often do not teach leadership, as confirmed recently by a white paper published by Thomson Reuters Legal Executive InstituteThe State of Law Firm Leadership 2018 and the Law Practice Magazine Leadership Issue 2019.

It is evident that many people believe leadership is a trait with which one is born and not a skill that one can learn. This is false, though. Leadership is usually not directly correlated with raw intelligence or excellent lawyering skills. Research shows that “many people who have abstract intelligence… are total 'flops' as [leaders], owing to their inability to deal satisfactorily with others." This is something that most people realize intuitively. In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains that “we are wired to connect” due to brain coupling and mirror neurons that cause our brains to literally link to the people with whom we are interacting.


According to Goleman, this means that “nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poison in our bodies.” Therefore, leaders can significantly impact professional happiness and success for those they lead – even sending them tumbling into a pit of despair and misery. A Gallup poll of more than 1 million U.S. employees concluded that the number one reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor. Numerous academic papers have reached the same conclusions. This is not something we can ignore.


As Simon Sinek aptly put it, as a leader, “[Y]ou are not in charge, you are responsible for those in your charge.” Similarly, in a recent article for Law Practice Magazine, Anne Brafford, author of Positive Professionals, a science-based guidance to aspiring positive law firms, writes that “partners and other leaders don’t get to opt out of being role models. If you have any amount of power or status in your firm, people are watching you very closely for cues about standards and expectations.” While I teach strategies for effective personal growth and transformation to help lawyers excel in any environment, I’ve seen that even the most capable lawyers will struggle under the weight of poor organizational culture.


How can law firm leaders create high-performing and happy teams?


1. Lead with Empathy


One answer is leading with empathy. As a leader, you have a choice: motivate through fear or motivate through empathy. Copious research has shown that motivating through empathy will foster trust, loyalty, and long-term organizational success. For instance, if someone on your team proposes something that seems like a poor idea, consider asking why they thought it could make sense in the first place. Put yourself in their shoes. If you simply reject it, your entire team will get the message that creative thinking and taking risks are dangerous and unwelcome, and they will be too afraid to speak up in the future. On the other hand, if you practice self-awareness, take a pause, and simply say “thank you for your idea, I’d love to explore your reasoning a bit further so I can better understand.” When you take this approach, your team will know that you care, and in turn everyone will thrive.


2. Develop Self-Awareness


Another critical aspect of effective law firm leadership is self-awareness. As a recent Harvard Business Review article, How Leaders Become Self-Aware, points out “without self-awareness, you cannot understand your strengths and weakness, your “super powers” versus your “kryptonite.” It is self-awareness that allows the best business-builders to walk the tightrope of leadership: projecting conviction while simultaneously remaining humble enough to be open to new ideas and opposing opinions. The conviction [leaders] need for their vision makes them less than optimally wired for embracing vulnerabilities or leading with humility. All this makes self-awareness that much more essential.”


Research shows that leaders need an inner compass of self-awareness to walk the tight rope of leadership. It is impossibleto lead without empathy, and research has established this conclusion firmly. A survey of 75 members of the Business Advisory Council of Stanford Graduate School rates self-awareness as the superior competency that leaders must develop. Harvard Business School enumerates self-awareness among the key attributes that their program seeks to develop in its candidates. Earlier this year, Penn Law launched the Future of the Profession Initiative which integrates lawyer wellbeing and professional development programing into the core curriculum and seeks to “equip [students] with tools to promote awareness.”


How can one develop self-awareness? In my work, I often ask people to step back and reflect on their character strengths, their values, their thinking, and their listening styles. Leaders who want to improve must first understand where they are – and then figure out where they need to go.



Effective leaders are empathetic and self-aware. They motivate and inspire others, provide important and timely feedback, and serve as good role models, using their strengths, skills, and values to build work cultures where others can thrive and flourish – creating organizations that are as positive and resilient as they are successful.

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