Emotional Intelligence: 5 steps to a meaningful law career

By Boyd Patterson

Time holds great value. For lawyers, the time invested in our law practices not only determines financial security, but also shapes clients’ lives, our professional reputations and even greater society. Best of all, time spent hanging out with lawyers often generates amazing entertainment dividends. No other professionals can top the “You won’t believe what happened in court today” stories.

The time spent practicing law also generates great stress. In choosing advocacy as a career, we basically signed up to spar for a living. Beyond the expected conflicts with opposing counsel, we regularly get blindsided on unexpected fronts. Unmanageable clients, flakey witnesses and that one grumpy judge who refuses to retire also come with the gig.

And the work piles up so fast. For lawyers, no greater nightmare exists than spinning the hamster wheel for no discernable purpose. Fortunately for me, in law school I discovered a professional focus that continues to provide significant personal meaning. But I had an advantage.

My first career involved a couple of degrees in psychology and a job counseling delinquent youth. Our primary treatment model helped young offenders understand and channel their destructive emotions into productive directions. As every counselor will confirm, dealing with others’ emotions in a professional manner clarifies our own emotions and values. In my case, increased personal awareness led from the psychology field to law school.

Maintaining the same perspective within law school resulted in trial advocacy making the biggest impact. Utilizing clinical programs to connect with the district attorney’s office and public defender’s office sealed the deal on litigation as a career path.

Fifteen rewarding years as a prosecutor, three years as a criminal defense attorney and two early years doing insurance defense now validate the soundness of that decision. I hope this article provides you with a better understanding of your own emotions and values, so that you too may discover a meaningful career direction.

In a nutshell: Emotions represent our evolved instincts. The powerful feelings provoking road rage and gang retaliation in modern times kept our ancestors alive in the ancient environment. Far from fleeting, evolved emotional dynamics remain constant rivers of motivation.

Emotions consciously and subconsciously push us to acquire what we need for genetic survival. Yet, while the same general drives exist across humanity, our individual brains connect certain emotions to particular experiences. These durable neural connections consistently provide motivation in specific situations and, thus, reveal your most personal values.

The simple takeaway: Your individual personality traits give you an advantage on certain career paths. Discovering what predictably motivates you not only facilitates success, but makes the journey itself meaningful. You need only clarify and build upon your true values. The following five steps will help you in this process and, hopefully, better guide your career direction.

Step 1: Be in the Moment. Law students and practicing lawyers often remain focused on the future. And for good reason: anticipating consequences allows us to avoid problems. Your (re)connecting with your authentic values requires adopting a different mindset.

Occasionally stop thinking about the next task and examine the moment of time before you right now. Throughout your day, take periodic breaks from the grind and connect with your surroundings. Perhaps the way an artist might. Observe details. Sounds. Colors.

Mindfulness experts suggest connecting to the moment by observing your breathing. Watch your abdomen rise and fall for a few breaths. Observe a single breath by silently stating “one” during the inhale and “one” on the exhale. Repeat this process, silently stating “two” on the next breath. Go to five, if possible. Neutral observation of your surroundings, without judgment, not only gives you a breather from stress. It sets the stage for your authentic personality traits to emerge.

2: Identify Motivation. As you build familiarity with exploring the moment, emotions will naturally surface. The Latin root word “mot” means “move,” forming the basis of the words emotion, motivation and motive. In fact, all emotions constitute some form of excitement. So pay close attention to whatever situation excites you in some way. Yes, it’s a touchy-feely exercise and may feel strange at first. But when you get beyond your hesitancy, start acknowledging emotions as they stir, noting their triggers.

Before trial advocacy, I found tax law most fascinating. When taking a break from law school, I would often drive out of town to visit relatives. The various strip mall businesses along the route drew my attention, for they evoked a genuine curiosity regarding how much tax they unnecessarily paid.

During your own introspective journey, whatever feelings naturally surface provide valuable feedback about your authentic personality. For the best insights, interact with a variety of people, places and situations. As a student, you enjoy immediate access to the widest range of practice topics, clinics, professors and fellow law students. Explore and engage the greater legal landscape, all while allowing your emotions to surface and flow.

3: Discern Meaning. Once you build familiarity with your emotions, you can start drawing objective conclusions from them. As you explore various situations with an open mind, you will find that certain encounters spark your feelings more than others.

Paying attention to emotions as they arise clarifies the common themes of your deeper perspective. What legal fact patterns consistently evoke your curiosity? What professors and practicing lawyers consistently role-model admirable traits? Every human interest involves some aspect of law. Thus, your leisure activities may provide insight about where your personal values intersect with a rewarding career path.

Powerful emotional feedback often arises when helping others deal with a painful issue familiar to you. The situations you examine will differ, but what you find personally meaningful within them all remains congruent. Over time, the stable aspects of your authentic personality will emerge into clear view. Objectively identify the law specializations which consistently stir your emotions. For once you recognize their personal significance, you can safely build upon them.

4. Map your route. At this point, the broad search narrows to a streamlined trajectory. The above steps will highlight a particular law field in which your authentic personality would likely flourish.

Now, simply map out a path to your place in that realm. Identify classes that provide additional understanding about the field. Visit with professors who can introduce you to local practitioners. Sign up for clinics that put you inside the actual practice. Key concept: as you focus your direction, keep working the first three steps.

Even more than law students, practicing attorneys need to regularly connect with the meaningful aspects of their careers. You might as well start now. Plus, as you will see, every legal specialization encompasses numerous subspecialties. By continuing to explore the moment with an open mind, your self-awareness within your chosen field will continue growing. In our intellectual profession, remaining a student of the game practically guarantees success.

5. Mastery. Once settled upon your career path, seek to master the subject matter. The core skills honed in your most challenging classes transfer well to actual practice.

Every job involves some wearisome tasks and self-discipline will remain necessary throughout your career. However, maintaining a connection to your authentic values can make all the difference.

Habits developed gutting out your 1L and 2L years will strengthen the “how” of your practice. Your values will serve as the “why.” Thus, the usual considerations of landing clients, achieving good results in court, developing a good reputation, etc., will flow from a more solid and meaningful foundation. Again, to keep moving toward personally rewarding success, regularly explore the moment while attending to your feelings. In so doing, you best serve your clients, enjoy your work and reduce the risk of burnout.

I hope the “M5” steps work for you the way they worked for me. In some form, they played a large part in setting my professional direction. Two decades after leaving the psychology field, I still enjoy connecting Motivation to my daily responsibilities. While I have a long way to go on the Mastery step, remaining a student of this game remains easy. Because it’s a game I truly love.