• Client Talk

what managing partners need to know about empathy


Empathy and legal services are words that do not always go together. Often seen as something that you either have or you do not, empathy has historically not been discussed in the context of managing a law firm. It has, however, been a recurring theme in 2020 and it is a skill that is starting to be not only recognised, but actively encouraged and developed in law firms.


Managing Partners are starting to recognise the importance of empathy. Not only to bring together employees and create cultures that foster teamwork and resilience, but also as the key to gathering insight and delivering what clients want. Moreover, empathy helps equip firms to successfully navigate the challenges they now face to adapt, survive, and thrive in this age of uncertainty.


Empathy is often described as the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. However, there are different levels of empathy. From understanding another’s point of view, through to feeling along with another and then sensing what they want from you. Empathy drives action and compassion. Empathy is visible through behaviours such as curiosity, active listening and being fully present. These behaviours can be taught, and empathy can be increased. For those Managing Partners who are focused on achieving that, the rewards are significant.


Jonathan Grigg, Managing Partner of regional firm Boyes Turner, on Series 1 of podcast Lawyer’s Coach, spoke about the challenges he had faced taking over the role on 1 April 2020. Covid-19 meant that he could only rise to the challenge by leveraging his soft skills. He set out why communication was at the heart of his approach and moreover the need for authenticity in communication. Remote working and virtual teams have moved this skill from a nice-to-have to critical in all professional services firms, and that looks set to stay as more firms consider embracing virtual working for the long term.


Jonathan is not alone in recognising the need for empathy. Managing partners that we have spoken to this year are seeing how it can not only help to unite their teams, but also to help create a culture where everyone belongs. Empathy has been at the heart of many discussions that firms have been having about how to drive diversity and inclusion. Initiatives focused on the ability to understand colleagues, and to do so in a way that brings everyone along, are the ones that will result in real change. Empathy is needed to deliver meaningful action.


General Counsels have explicitly recognised that lawyers need to be better at the soft skills, and they have called out empathy. The O-Shaped Lawyer initiative is calling for this to be brought in at the earliest stage of a lawyer’s training. Empathy is central to Daniel Goleman’s concept of Emotional Intelligence and the need for lawyers to be more empathetic is something that we hear again and again when coaching or speaking to both private practice and in-house lawyers. There is a recognition that the soft skills that build this empathy – active listening in particular – are lacking from most lawyers’ basic, and then ongoing, training.


This lack of training could be holding the industry back. If the skills needed to develop this empathy are missing in firms, this is a real barrier for the future, where increased uncertainty is going to demand change from the industry.


We believe that empathy is a soft skill with hard edges. Firms have not traditionally been good at teaching soft skills. We have seen the difference that empathy can bring to business relationships. Moreover, when coaching legal leaders, the most common challenge they bring is the increased pressure on them to deliver and the need to draw on soft skills to do that. These are skills that were not traditionally discussed in firms and many feel unprepared.


Starting to tackle the behavioural skills gap at all levels of professional services firms has risen up the agenda, it will be interesting to see who rises to the challenge.