Social Intelligence and Law

Posted on September 12, 2014 by Marie No Comments

A fascinating learning and teaching blog post hit my email the other day. In it, author Lara Hardy suggests that we are at the cusp of a new world – and that the graduate attributes that ensured success in the Information Age now no longer cut it. She argues that rapid technological change means that graduates need to use their social and emotional intelligence to network and create “personal capital” that makes them invaluable in the workplace and distinguishes them from their peers. In support of this argument, Hardy cites a study by the research organisation the Institute for the Future that found that, amongst other things such as novel and adaptive thinking and cross-cultural competency, social intelligence is the key to the future success and employability of graduates.

And this got me thinking – what does social intelligence have to do with law? What does it look like?

My first thoughts took me to Ethics. Yes! We learn Ethics at law school, and this teaches us empathy and how to balance the interests of stakeholders, and makes us reflect upon difficult decisions. By giving us tools to make ethical, moral as well as legal decisions, Ethics therefore makes us socially intelligent, and ultimately good, employable graduates.

But then, I kind of hit a brick wall, because I’ve taught Ethics. And, lamentably, my passion for teaching Ethics didn’t necessarily translate into students taking Ethics as seriously as I do…. So, my thoughts took a turn for the worst, and wandered to social unintelligence.

When did I last come across that while teaching law?

Ah… one notable example springs to mind – marking Remedies papers. Students were asked to assess the economic heads of loss for a young woman that had been injured in an accident and suffered brain damage. Prior to the accident she had been on the single parents pension and had not finished high school because she fell pregnant at 16. However, she had aspirations to go to TAFE and become a childcare worker. About one quarter of the students assessed her lifetime earning capacity as zero…. Needless to say I felt relieved that the legal principles in this field don’t substantiate such bias.

Apart from the fact that social unintelligence can lead to people living life in a bubble (and maybe they are very happy there?), I hit another brick wall. Yes social intelligence makes you a nicer person with a more diverse circle of friends – but why is it so important to law? Tired of pondering around in circles, I decided to phone a friend – my mum. Now this wonderful woman, a psychologist who works with burnt out lawyers, had a tonne of good ideas about why social intelligence is vital for legal practice. I leave you with some of her key thoughts:

Social intelligence is good for business

The point of difference for businesses, including legal businesses, is customer service. Empathy, understanding and good social awareness skills helps you build rapport with clients and walk the line between assisting a client to manage their own emotions, staying empathetic, and thinking rationally to help them build a strong case.

Social intelligence is good for you

One of the keys to maintaining your mental health is to understand your own emotions. Self-awareness is key to emotional containment, which is often needed in legal practice due to the pressures of work and the fact that you will often feel challenged and vulnerable. Once you can acknowledge that everyone has vulnerable moments (even you) you are more able to develop and maintain good relationships.

Self management skills are also necessary to help you keep personal distance from your work in order to protect yourself emotionally. Or at least, to prevent you from becoming emotionally overloaded (ie taking on others’ emotional baggage as your own.) The boundary between self and client (and arguably between self and employer!) is crucial to avoiding burn-out and/or adopting inappropriate coping mechanisms such as turning to alcohol or drugs.

Flexibility is the key

Flexibility is the key when it comes to social intelligence. Legal work requires you to maintain distance while at the same time identify with and communicate with vulnerable people.  In this environment, being rigid and emotionally cut-off is not a good outcome. The challenge for new lawyers is to learn to blend the two and know when to use which and under what circumstances; and social intelligence can help you do this.

For more information about social intelligence and how to build your skills in this field, click here click here

For more information about mental health and the legal profession see the information on the following websites: Law Council  and NSW Law Society


© Marie Katherine Hadley 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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