Why Compassion Matters for Lawyers

I’m sitting with my client who is grieving the death of his wife. She died from cancer. They spent and borrowed every penny in an effort to save her life. As I sit with him, I realize how poorly law school has prepared me for this moment.

I think back to my 1L Torts class. In the cases, people lose limbs, die horrible, painful deaths. The Ford Pinto blows up, killing everyone in the family except the father who is driving the car. We are told to recite the “relevant” facts, apply the applicable law, and run the analysis. Is the defendant liable?

Not for a single moment, do we pause to consider the suffering of the parties involved. Nor do we pause to consider the impact on ourselves. 

The only “relevant” question is liability and damages. But there’s so much more. How do we cope with vicarious trauma? How do we support and work with clients in distress? Being a lawyer is so much more than knowing the formula: Relevant facts + Law + Analysis = Liability.

After a decade of practicing law, this is what I know. Being a “good lawyer” requires more than the ability to get the facts, apply the applicable law, analyze and advocate for your client’s position. It requires humanity and compassion. When I say compassion, what I mean is the ability to “feel with” – the ability to empathize, tapping into our own innate desire to help, and taking steps to alleviate the suffering.

The next question is how do we not lose ourselves in the client’s suffering? The answer is the same. It’s compassion. Except, this time, it’s practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion is our own ability to recognize our own pain. And let’s be clear. It’s painful to sit with someone who is grieving the loss of his wife.

This is why I believe having compassion – not only for our clients but also for ourselves is crucial for lawyers. It allows us to care for our clients and at the same time, care for ourselves. It’s the one thing that wasn’t taught in law school but should be.

This article was first featured on Ms. JD.

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