When people think lawyers and the law, it would be fair to say that the initial images that come to mind would be fairly negative ones; images of fast talking men and women, dressed in power suits, driving expensive cars, dealing in black and white, right and wrong and costing their clients a small fortune!
In some instances, these stereotypes could be quite fitting, particularly people in more transactional areas of the law such as corporate or commercial, business and property law. Indeed, in these areas of the law it is probably more beneficial and indeed preferable that a lawyer fit this stereotype.
However, anyone who has been injured in an accident or is the victim of abuse or trauma and has brought a claim for compensation, know all too well that personal injury law is something of a different kettle of fish when it comes to the skills required of a lawyer, both in terms of their ability to connect with their client, and in terms of their ability to unearth information and gather the evidence required to yield the best possible result for them.
As a lawyer who has now been working in the field of personal injury law for the past seven years, I have dealt with clients whom have suffered all manner of injuries and trauma, both psychological and physical, and have had the opportunity to observe how different people respond to and deal with pain and suffering in their lives.
One trend I have observed over the years is that for many of us, our natural instinct when faced with adversity or suffering from impairments that leave us unable to do things that we used to be able to do with ease, is to put on a brave face and just try and “get on with things”. Contrary to many popular stereotypes that tend to paint the picture that people bringing compensation claims are whingers or opportunists, I have actually found that the majority of my clients have been very strong and stoic individuals, people who have wanted to get on with their lives as best they can and who have not wanted to burden others with their complaints.
Growing up an then coming to study law I had always wondered and worried that my ability to identify someone in suffering, my desire to want to help people and my tendency to empathise with others would come against me and make it hard for me to do the best job for my clients. However, to my pleasant surprise and satisfaction, I have found my so-called “emotional intelligence” to be one of, if not the most important skills I can employ in securing great outcomes for my clients.
Emotional intelligence has been defined in many ways, however I like to look at it as:
- The ability to recognise and manage my own emotions;
- The ability to recognise/identify the emotions of others through their verbal and non verbal communication (for example body language, eye contact (or lack thereof) tone and pace of their voice etc;
- The ability to discriminate between different feelings and “name” them and/or identify their potential origin and impact; and
- The ability to manage and adjust emotions to achieve obtain adapt to the environment or the person’s personal circumstances and/or to obtain information/achieve an outcome.
Often when conducting meetings with my client’s, I have found that there is more insight and information to be gained from what they don’t say, rather than what they tell me in answer to my questions. This is where emotional intelligence most comes in to play; it helps to identify that there is more going on behind the scenes, that my client is either too afraid or embarrassed to admit that they are struggling, or they have such a low opinion of themselves at the time (because of their injuries or the trauma they have suffered) that they don’t even think something is worth mentioning to me.
If a lawyer is not in touch with themselves or their clients on an emotional level, these sorts of signs can be missed and important information about how a client’s life has been affected can be completely overlooked. This could potentially result in a person missing out on the ability to claim additional compensation. Reading between the lines of what your client is telling you and what you can actually see is going on with them, in their body and their mind, can give you important leads on what evidence you need to gather, witnesses you need to speak to and angles to be explored in preparing their case.
In personal injury law, there are restrictions and barriers to what can and cannot be claimed and what can and cannot be done in support of the client. Lawyers need to be mindful of maintaining professional boundaries and not getting too caught up in their client’s personal circumstances or struggles. It is finding where that fine line is and walking it with determination and grace that, in my opinion, ensures that a clients case is properly prepared and prosecuted and in a manner which not only demonstrates a deep concern and respect for them as a human being, but which may ultimately help restore some sense of value hope and within them.
Written by Ruth Hudson.
Ruth Hudson is a Practice Group Leader at Stacks Goudkamp. She has experience acting for clients in a variety of areas, including motor vehicle claims, public liability claims and professional negligence claims.