It is common public perception that solicitors are unnecessarily expensive, impersonal and predominantly business focussed. Alongside the rising living costs and increasing financial pressures, members of the public are convinced it is worthwhile handling legal matters themselves.
Solicitors often prioritise thinking and problem solving over fully listening. They may be proficient in disconnecting from emotion, as it is traditionally thought to distort legal reasoning.
Solicitors tend to remove emotion from a situation to focus on a practical solution. Whilst they are likely to be providing a ‘good’ service, acting without emotion may have a detrimental impact on the overall client experience.
Solicitors cannot simply be driven by legal processes and litigation deadlines, but they must give careful consideration to the value they can add to the client experience. The relationship between a solicitor and a client is built on trust and communication. For this reason there is a key benefit in cultivating emotional intelligence (‘EI’) and listening skills in solicitors; these are skills which can be overlooked.
EI is defined as the ability to engage with your own and others’ emotions. It is the ability to perceive an emotion, discern the cause of that emotion and to respond appropriately.
Emotional engagement with a client should be considered a core skill for solicitors and all client facing professionals. It is not uncommon for clients to contact their solicitor because of emotional circumstances and pressures. For these clients, there is a particular emphasis on how their solicitor made them feel.
From psychological studies and research undertaken, there is a body of evidence in support of the importance of EI and it directly relates to:
Working in areas of law such as contested probate, inheritance protection, family and property as examples in particular, involves clients approaching a solicitor and finding a way to explain difficult truths and unwelcome news. Clients often have heightened emotions and may have the difficulty of explaining their current health or mental state, sometimes caused or exacerbated by a tragic event or damaging disputes. It is for the solicitor to understand how to support the client through this and it is vital the client feels understood. Often the instinct to be helpful overrides the need to fully listen and take stock.
Having prior experience with corporate clients who were very knowledgeable of legal procedures and litigation, I had a different perception of EI, which was shaped by my environment. After changing my practice to contested probate, my time with private clients has taught me a kinder side to the law and the value in listening, candour and responsiveness.
Solicitors may know what the matter is with their clients but miss what matters to them. The skill is not simply listening, but listening to understand. A greater understanding helps a solicitor to pace a conversation, and fully process a client’s thoughts and emotions to tailor the advice.
EI awareness is growing not just with client relationships but in people management, well-being, diversity and inclusion.
Solicitors must be able to critically assess a situation and anticipate a client’s reaction or feeling, rather than instinctively just apply the legal theory and rules. Depth of knowledge and empathy can coexist to provide the best experience for both client and solicitor.
Corporate cultures need to adapt, to understand the wider the skill set required of a solicitor, beyond the technical legal knowledge, to provide the ultimate client experience. EI and the power in listening to understand clients should not be underestimated.