“Heads Up!” Lawyers Need to Value Their Emotions

A lawyer’s job often involves planning, analyzing, and problem solving so we understandably value our brains as an important tool and resource. We tend to overvalue logic and undervalue the importance of our emotional selves. Fortunately, many in the legal profession are beginning to recognize that noticing and valuing our emotions are important prerequisites to thriving. The Report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (American Bar Association) defines the emotional dimension as, “Developing the ability to identify and manage our own emotions to support mental health, achieve goals and inform decision-making.” Research confirms the importance of emotions in decision-making. Neurologist Antonio Damasio’s studies concluded that patients with damage to the part of the prefrontal cortex that processes emotions often struggle with even routine decisions.

As noted above, a healthy well-being practice places a high value on emotional awareness and we cannot properly value something we are not fully aware of so a basic question to ask yourself is, “How am I feeling right now?” If you have an emotion you currently default to it may be helpful to identify other options. So if your default is “stressed” you may also be feeling “unsupported.” Emotions are signposts or data that can help you gain greater self-knowledge. If you are feeling lonely it could mean you are craving greater levels of connection or intimacy. If you are bored that may mean you are needing more opportunities for meaning or growth. Effectively identifying your feelings can benefit relationships as well. For example, let’s say you are angry because your partner/spouse has been traveling and hasn’t checked in as agreed upon. Asking yourself, “What else am I feeling?” can help you realize that you are scared as well, concerned for their safety. Sharing with your loved one how you were impacted will more likely lead to greater connection and changed behaviour. Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, noted in a recent podcast interview, “When we label emotions accurately we are more able to discern the precise cause and our brain’s readiness potential is activated allowing us to read the data of our emotions and take the proper next steps.” 

There are elements unique to the legal profession that throw a wrench in the cogs of managing our emotional selves. In the legal world, a money-driven mindset puts emphasis on the most black and white ROI metrics: more hours billed equals more money made. Consequently, the benefit of less quantifiable metrics like emotional well-being are severely undermined. Fortunately, there has been some culture change in some firms and organizations. Having a supportive and psychologically safe environment can foster the emotional growth of those working within it. Legal employers must do better at creating environments where lawyers can honestly respond to the question, “How are you doing?” and feel supported. This can inspire others to do the same. As with most change, the work starts at the individual level and builds into a movement that sparks our attention. In doing so, we are shifting the mindset of the respected, but often stubborn, legal profession. 

Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn, M.Ed.,JD joined LAPBC in 2019.