For Women in Law By Women in Law

The Impact of Emotional Intelligence in Legal Practice: Connecting with Clients and Colleagues

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What qualities make an excellent lawyer?

My observation from practicing for over twenty years is that the best lawyers are not necessarily the ones who got the top grades in law school or secured the most prestigious clerkship. Instead, the most successful lawyers are the ones who understand emotional intelligence and employ it in their practice. They use it to find and keep clients and to work productively with colleagues and staff. They also understand the importance of utilizing this tool when dealing with opposing counsel and during mediations and in court.

Not to promote stereotypes, but this skill seems to come more naturally for woman.

So what is it and how can­­ you harness it and use it as a superpower?

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognize and effectively manage emotions in ourselves and others. It is a core course requirement for many graduate leadership programs and is thought to be more reliable in predicting overall success than your intelligence quotient, commonly known as your IQ.

Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist who authored the seminal book on the topic, describes the skills needed to harness this tool:


1. Self-Awareness

This is more than just recognizing your own feelings, it is being able to consider how they impact your actions and how your feeling can impact others. I have attended many a mediation when things seem to be going well until an off-hand comment derails everything. Conversely, I have also seen counsel demonstrate empathy to turn things around when I had thought any chance of settlement was lost.


2. Self-Regulation

This does not mean denying or masking your feelings; instead, consider it the ability to control your emotions so you can use them in the most the effective manner. The obvious example is the rude or discourteous email that sends you reeling. Instead of rage-typing an equally nasty response, walk away from the keyboard! Let it sit in your inbox until the next day, and then draft a response which deals with the legal issues. I often run my response by a colleague before sending it. Or if you need to get it out, draft the response you want to, but send it only to yourself and send a response when you are calm. Or instead of emailing at all, call the other lawyer. You can mention you were surprised at the tone of the email and see what that person says; maybe they have a difficult client, maybe they have had a bad day. In turn, you get information you would not have obtained had you just responded back in anger.


3. Motivation

Instead of being motivated by external rewards, which are often beyond personal control, emotionally intelligent people are driven by internal rewards, like the satisfaction achieved by handling a tricky client or situation with grace and poise. They also give themselves some slack when things don’t go the way they had wished.


4. Empathy

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is a key life skill. Recognizing how others feel is important but the key is in being able to tailor your responses based on this information. My empathy hero is my 8-year-old daughter, who, from an early age just “got it.” She often reminds me to  think about what other people may be going through when assessing a situation – sage advice for sure.


While emotional intelligence may come naturally to a fortunate few, for others, it’s a skill that blooms with practice. No matter where you land on that spectrum, the key takeaway is this: taking time to contemplate how you carry yourself and engage with others in the legal realm and beyond will undoubtedly yield concrete, measurable advantages. So, as you embark on your journey, remember that honing this ability isn’t just an option – it’s a surefire way to reap substantial rewards.


About the Author

Jennifer Woznesensky is a partner at Harper Grey and practices with the firm’s Insurance and Health Law groups.  An active volunteer, Jennifer is a director of the B.C. Chapter of the Women in Insurance Cancer Crusade, which raises funds for the Canadian Cancer Society and a director for Société Place Maillardville Society, a not-for-profit organization which provides community services and programs in her area.

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