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JD + warmth and empathy equals?
February 27, 2012 8:30 AM   Subscribe

Which areas of law practice might be attractive to a JD who wants to use her smarts plus a strong sense of empathy and a warm personality in her future work?
posted by Hellebore to Law & Government (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Mediation and/or other forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution spring to mind.
posted by gauche at 8:35 AM on February 27, 2012


Family Law, if you're not the type to get burnt out on it. It's a pretty emotional area of the law where clients tend to need quite a bit of hand-holding.
posted by amro at 8:36 AM on February 27, 2012


I suggest estate planning. It's an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people, so a strong sense of empathy and a warm personality are good qualities to have.
posted by jedicus at 8:36 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Family law would seem to be the obvious choice there. Corporate clients tend not to care all that much about empathy; family law clients do.

But I'd talk to other female attorneys about this. It may be the twenty-first century, but just about all the female attorneys I know have told me they've sort of had to come up with a professional persona which is both faithful to who they are and doesn't come across as weak. Sad to say, but a "warm personality" may be a liability in certain situations.
posted by valkyryn at 8:37 AM on February 27, 2012


Emphatically not family law -- not right now, anyway. Being emphatic and warm will get you sucked dry too quickly. Warm your toes in other areas and learn professional and personal boundaries before you venture into family law. Also, stay far away from neglect and abuse cases until you're 100% sure you won't end up crying in the ladies room. (Like me.)

I second instead estate planning. It is indeed an uncomfortable topic and your clients will appreciate a warm, empathetic approach.

Criminal law can also benefit from empathy and warmth, particularly if the defendants are young or vulnerable. The system can be a cold, hard place and they'd really benefit from someone with an approach like yours.

I also second ADR or mediation. That's a good way for you to touch family law with your empathy and warmth without getting sucked in too quickly.
posted by mibo at 8:47 AM on February 27, 2012


Estate planning.

Family Law requires heart, but it also requires a tough stomach and some stony walls. Divorce, abuse, and child custody can be part of the nastiest disputes you'll ever see.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:47 AM on February 27, 2012


I wouldn't think family law would be a good choice because those cases are often extremely acrimonious, which doesn't leave a lot of room for a warm personality. Many family law clients want a "bulldog" type attorney. If you can play both roles, then that's great, but if you're looking for a specialty that lets you play to your strengths, I'm not sure family law is it.

Litigation in general (and thus also family law) seems a place where empathy is not necessarily a boon because you don't want your personal opinion about the merits of the client's position to cloud your professional judgment. For example, if your client is a wronged spouse then empathy may make it difficult to tell the client that their legal position is weak and they should settle because the natural thing is to want to fight it out.
posted by jedicus at 8:48 AM on February 27, 2012


It may be the twenty-first century, but just about all the female attorneys I know have told me they've sort of had to come up with a professional persona which is both faithful to who they are and doesn't come across as weak. Sad to say, but a "warm personality" may be a liability in certain situations.

I think there's a weird implication there that women are inherently weak, or at least that they come across as weak. I am a female insurance defense attorney and while the job certainly requires strong negotiating skills, it does not require that I create a "professional persona" any more than anyone else who behaves somewhat differently in a professional setting versus a social one.
posted by amro at 8:48 AM on February 27, 2012


I think there's a weird implication there that women are inherently weak, or at least that they come across as weak.

There totally is. I practice in a relatively rural area in the Midwest. There are still people practicing who were there when the first female attorneys joined the local bar association, who actually had the conversations about how female attorneys were supposed to be treated. I'd be willing to bet money that the situation isn't that different in most counties outside of a major metro area.

I'm not saying this is a good or even accurate thing, just that it's a thing.
posted by valkyryn at 8:55 AM on February 27, 2012


Estate planning, intellectual property (if you work with artists, filmmakers, documentarians, a warm personality would be very helpful, I should think), or maybe consumer's rights?
posted by Ideefixe at 8:55 AM on February 27, 2012


You know, as long as you have some inner toughness too, being warm and empathetic is an asset in any area of law, including litigation. Juries and judges love genuine, professional, warm, truthful lawyers. And empathy makes you much better at "reading" jurors, judges and witnesses, as well as important trial skills like cross examination. I will tell you as a former sexual assault and domestic violence prosecutor that those qualities are also invaluable when working with victims.

Aim for the area that you enjoy practicing in, and deploy these valuable personal traits. They will help you no matter what you do.
posted by bearwife at 8:56 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Litigation in general (and thus also family law) seems a place where empathy is not necessarily a boon because you don't want your personal opinion about the merits of the client's position to cloud your professional judgment.

Totally this. I've opposed several attorneys in personal injury cases--of both genders!--who were so sold on the sympathetic aspects of their clients that they missed real weaknesses in their cases and got taken apart on motion practice.

Being personable is generally a good thing, because you have to get along with opposing counsel, the judge, and your clients, but you have absolutely got to be able to view your cases and clients with detachment if you're going to be any good at this. People who are more empathetic than average can have trouble here.
posted by valkyryn at 8:58 AM on February 27, 2012


Smarts, warm personality, and empathy are assets in any area of law where you'll practice, but you might want to avoid jobs where you don't have much meaningful contact with clients or other practitioners--ie, jobs where you're mainly doing research and writing in and office. Most bigger firm jobs are like this for your first several years, and you might feel isolated, since for the most part your "clients" are other people in your firm.

Having said that, any bigger law firm has lots of empathetic, warm, smart people.

But, here's one area you might think about: bankruptcy. The bankruptcy bar is generally collegial, you have a lot of contact with other people, typically, and there is often more of a sense of collaboration and problem-solving more than there is a sense of an adversarial process like you'd find in litigation. (Gross generalization, clearly).
posted by MoonOrb at 9:25 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


But I'd talk to other female attorneys about this. It may be the twenty-first century, but just about all the female attorneys I know have told me they've sort of had to come up with a professional persona which is both faithful to who they are and doesn't come across as weak. Sad to say, but a "warm personality" may be a liability in certain situations.

I disagree a bit. I think empathy is a strength, especially when combined with killer legal skills. I find it helps me do my job better because I'm able to see a story, not just an offense and a sentencing range. You might consider indigent criminal defense or juvenile defense. Lots of these people are in need of both understanding of their circumstances and a vigorous defense. Immigration can also fall in this category, depending on where you wind up, geographically.

To give an example, I just helped a client enter a plea to a midemeanor (negotiated down from a felony using legal and equitable arguments), but the real victory was getting the client the social services she needed to leave an abusive spouse and overcome a substance addiction, which would not have happened if she had not opened up to me (empathy).
posted by *s at 9:31 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I will agree that the bankruptcy bar is the most congenial group of lawyers I have ever worked with. It's also a very rules-based practice; so if your mind works that way, it should be very engaging for you.

The best juvenile defense attorneys I worked with were not warm, sympathetic people. Really, the cases and the client relationships don't work that way. The courtrooms also tend to be less congenial because so often they are cleared for privacy reasons and because the burn-out rate is very high.

A private general practice where you essentially take any case that walks in the door might be a good practice for someone who has great people skills and wants to use warmth and empathy in practice. Also, the intake attorneys at legal aid agencies spend their days interviewing clients, sussing out the real issue, matching that issue up with the appropriate practice areas, and then easing the clients into the attorney-client relationship. It isn't always intellectually challenging, but it would make good use of a warm personality.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:09 AM on February 27, 2012


I think it is very hard to say that "empathy" would be a boon or a detriment in any particular area of law. Stereotypes really don't apply in law practice. Criminal defense is a good field for empathetic people, but it can also brutally disabuse you of any rose-tinted conceptions you may have had about your fellow man. Do you want your work to do that to you? On the flip side, the work of a big-firm corporate attorney may not intrinsically draw upon your empathy, but being a decent person with a good work ethic would serve you well and help you thrive, so being warm and empathetic is not useless even when the work is rather remote and abstract from everyday human concerns.

I would caution against following a career path based on what you think would be good for an empathetic person. Instead, look for good places to work -- firms with good atmospheres, stimulating work, talented and nice colleagues -- and your empathy will be a plus, whatever the nature of the work.
posted by jayder at 10:19 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Absolutely bankruptcy or estate law -- the clients are vulnerable by definition.

If you can turn your empathy on and off, family law. But you need to be able to separate your emotional health from the client drama, and you need to be a bulldog to opposing parties when necessary.
posted by freshwater at 10:21 AM on February 27, 2012


There is a particular niche of criminal defense that would work particularly well with those characteristics: Death penalty defense.

Most capital cases revolve around mitigation. In other words, the prosecution may have overwhelming evidence that the client committed the crime, and the defendant is likely to be found guilty. However, the sentencing stage, when the jury decides whether to apply the death penalty, is a whole separate stage of the trial. It usually involves the presentation of "mitigation" evidence -- all the horrible things the defendant went through from the day they were born, explaining why they ended up where they did, and making them less "deserving" of the death penalty.

This work requires you to immerse yourself in every single detail of your client's entire life, their family circumstances, their emotional state, their mental problems, etc. It usually goes on for years (if done right) and involves a heavy-duty, long-term relationship with the client that is unparalleled in any other area of the law. It requires you to earn your client's total trust, as well as the client's family members. It can also require you to work with the victim's family, and to understand their position, which is very difficult. And if you ever have to go to trial in a capital case (this stuff is often done on appeal or through habeas corpus, to show how trial counsel failed to do all this work), your warm personality will help win over the jury's sympathy.

It's requires a huge amount of dedication though, and obviously it doesn't pay nearly as well as other attorney positions. It is most certainly not for everybody. But it can be very rewarding, deep work. Some of the most devoted attorneys I know are in this field.

It would be a really good idea to talk with several attorneys in this field if you want to consider it. Message me if you want me to put you in touch with some folks.
posted by mikeand1 at 10:50 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Elder law.

Not only does it fit your criteria, but the field is set to increase dramatically once the bulk of the baby boomers retire/enter nursing facilities.
posted by oxfordcomma at 11:08 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nthing Estate Planning, but only if you love tax law. Estate planning is all about the tax, so you have to be a bit of a geek.

Elder law also a good option, a good, esoteric, interesting niche.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:44 PM on February 27, 2012


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