One lawyer’s quest for soul and meaningful work

What does a lawyer with a soul look like? Can lawyers use their soul at work? Can the word soul even be used at all when talking about lawyers and lawyering? For a long time I searched for my own way of being a lawyer in a way that I could experience doing it with my heart and soul. I lived a kind of divided life: as a lawyer I was very much separated from my own feelings when otherwise as a person I am very emotional and base my decisions on feelings and intuition. As you may guess, nothing good came out of that and I had to change. 

Here’s the story of one lawyer about finding her own soul and eventually bringing it to work as well.

How much empathy is enough or too much?

When I made the decision to leave the corporate world, I decided to move away behind the papers to be with people and help them. I had experienced for too long that my work didn’t matter and that I was just drowning in papers from day to day. When starting my own business, I took to heart all the cases that came behind my door. I even went so far as to decide to take family and inheritance law as my new specialization – a field I had never worked on! I wanted to get involved in people’s lives and it’s hard to come up with cases more meaningful for each of us than birth, death or family and relationship issues.

In the first weeks of my law firm, one winter day, an old couple appeared behind the door in a snowstorm. They had walked through a blizzard from the other side of town to me to make their last will. I opened the door confused, the door that no one but the local baglady visited – I handled the assignments by phone and email. When I heard the reason for the visit, and saw them in that doorway all snowy and hopeful, I asked the couple to wait a moment and went to the back room. There in the back room I squatted down and cried a little, it felt so great that they needed help and had decided to trust me.

Family and inheritance law did not eventually become the bread and butter for me, but those encounters with people were really important and with each customer my work seemed to be greatly meaningful. I was able to give people something valuable that helped them in their real, human-sized puzzles.

I have been thinking a lot about how much empathy for other people’s situations is too much and on the other hand, what is too little. The optimal amount is impossible to say, but both extremes are detrimental.

Personally, I went a little astray at first. I didn’t immediately find my own healthy boundaries but ended up spending hours listening to clients’ life stories and acting as a therapist. At times, there was no legal agenda in their stories. Surely those meetings probably helped the customer, but the problem was in me, in that I got too involved in people’s situations. Going too deep does not help the customer in the best way. Instead you can be present and listening, but still remain the objective and professional person from which the customer has come to seek help.

Experiencing genuine empathy for your customer is at the heart of lawyering – at least in my opinion. Empathy is on the rise for sure. It is portrayed as a solution to almost every challenge in working life. The ability to step in someone else’s shoes and see the world and situations through the eyes of the other is so important. Especially if you want to apply human-centered design to your work. Empathy has also been and continues to be an important skill for the survival of the entire human species – it amplifies our ability to work together.

But as I learned the hard way, empathy also carries risks. Putting yourself in the position of another cannot be limitless and complete loss of self and one’s own perspective. It may well be that everything that the customer describes as her problem cannot or should not be solved as the customer suggests or desires. If you blindly trust the other to tell the only truth, you will only shift from your own bias to the bias of the other. Without limits, you can begin to take an unreasonable amount of responsibility for the well-being of others or feel guilty that you are doing well when you see so many of those who have it worse than you.

So as important as empathy is, you need to set healthy boundaries for it.

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Are feelings allowed for a lawyer?

Bringing feelings to my work as a lawyer has been another big theme in my life. I hid my feelings for a long time while working as a lawyer. As a result, my ability to experience empathy was also limited and I looked at situations through very limited lenses. It also changed who I was and not in a good way. In ordinary conversations I was lively and vibrant, but as a lawyer I became almost a matter-of-fact robot. When I talked about “serious issues,” my voice lowered and the expressive gestures and expressions disappeared. Yes, I fostered trust and credibility, but emotional contact was completely lacking. Where was I as a real person? Where was I as myself?

In its essence, the lawyer’s job is to help and advocate for other people. You need a lot more than just factual knowledge and writing and argumentation skills to work as a lawyer. The most important part of the work is interaction and communication, as well as encountering other people. Yet the lawyer’s role is mostly associated with expectations or perceptions of seriousness, greyness, distance, and isolation.

Traditionally, we lawyers have been required to stick to our own professional role and to keep our own personal values separate from our professional activities. We are also expected to remain neutral in relation to our customers. We are expected to think like lawyers, which may mean that we learn early on to reject our original moral as well as the emotional reactions that the cases we handle may cause.

Everyone can see that this is not sustainable. Feelings are such a big part of us that work is not very sustainable if we need to keep that part separate and hidden.

Emotional skills are important in themselves, they are basic human skills, but they also have great significance and value for your own work. For example, it is imperative that you know your customer well enough so that you can take care of her affairs and pursue her best interests in the best possible way. However, you will not get to know your customers unless you are able to face them as a whole. Unless you are able to face everything that is present in the encounter, such as the customer’s fears and aspirations, the injustices of the society around them, even the pain of the world. Do you look away and focus only on the narrow story that the customer is able to articulate to you in your meeting? Or are you trying to listen to what the customer is really saying and what the customer really needs. This requires a desire and ability to listen, as well as emotional skills such as the ability to recognize, process, and regulate your own feelings.

Feelings also help you to see and connect things more broadly. By this I mean that while your role as a lawyer is to help a customer with legal problems, your role is also broader: to promote equity and justice in the society. For each customer and for each assignment or task, you should also be able to consider the broader context of what the problem really is and what the different solution options will mean for different parties. All this reflection necessarily requires feelings and emotional skills.

Feelings are by no means detachable from you, and you should not try to detach or separate them from you or the work you do. Feelings are essential preconditions for good work. They play an important role in decision-making when assessing the consequences of decisions and how these consequences are taken into account. Better emotional skills simply help you make better decisions. Because decisions are based on feelings anyway, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.

So not only are the feelings allowed in your work as a lawyer, they are required.

Find your soul, find your meaning

I seem to conclude that a lawyer with a soul is a lawyer who does her work as a whole person, with all her feelings. A lawyer with a soul is also able to experience healthy empathy and face her client as a whole person, with her feelings for everything. At least for me a lawyer with a soul is a better lawyer. And I am sure that the future lawyer is required to have a soul too.

What’s best, it is really deliberating to be able to be both a lawyer and a human being. You can give up roles and presenting yourself as a certain kind of lawyer and be yourself and be a good lawyer just the way you are. It means that when countering your customers you can be a whole person with a lived life, the joys and sorrows of that moment, and the reigns of everyday life. Your everyday life does exist and it gets to show up at work. And I can promise that your encounters with other people will be on a whole other level after this.

If you dare to be the real and whole you in your encounters, it gives permission and space for another to be real and whole as well. This also opens the door into experiencing the meaning of work in a new way. As a lawyer, you do human relations work.

Image of Hannele Korhonen Legal Designer

Who’s writing?

Hi, I’m Hannele. I am an ex-corporate lawyer, legal designer, pioneer in legal tech, serial entrepreneur and blogger.  I am the founder and teacher in Lawyer’s Design School.

I’m here to teach you new skills and mindset of legal design to thrive in the future of law.

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