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A Whole New Mind: Empathy

Today we’ll be discussing A Whole New Mind’s take on empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another and understand how they feel. It requires one to look beyond themselves. I like how Dan describes empathy:

Empathy allows us to see the other side of an argument, comfort someone in distress, and bite our lip instead of muttering something snide. Empathy builds self-awareness [and]… allows us to work together.

How does empathy apply to law? The legal field is a people field. Everything you do in law requires empathy. When you’re before a judge or jury, the ability to understand how they think or feel about things will assist you in persuading them to your side. When you sit down and negotiate a business deal or try to mediate a divorce, empathy and people skills are essential.

I think it’s hard for law students to understand the importance of empathy in law. We just see law in the abstract. We read cases, extract law, and that’s that. For me, I often forget that the case involves real people.

So, how can you improve your sense of empathy? Here’s what the book suggests.

  1. Take acting classes. Acting is empathizing. We often hear how an actor has to “get into character.” It means the actor has to look beyond themselves and try to discover how their character would act in different situations. It’s a difficult skill to master, but the lessons learned from acting classes will surely help anybody with the ability to empathize. Acting classes can also help with public speaking, a vital skill in litigation.
  2. Volunteer. Volunteering forces you to interact with people who aren’t like you. By helping people with your problems, you can develop your ability to empathize.
  3. Take emotional quotient tests. Ivillage has a nice test so you can see how your emotional IQ stands.

My own suggestion for developing empathy in law school.

  • Get to know the people in your casebook. As mentioned above, I have the problem of overlooking that real people are the characters in my case book. As a way to counteract this, I’ll Google the plaintiff’s or defendant’s name. Often I can come up with a picture of the individual and a news story to go along with it. It’s a nice way to personalize what I’m reading and get beyond the purely analytic nature of the case law method.