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Case study

Drinker Biddle case study

Weaving emotional intelligence into business development, client service, and attorney well-being

Drinker Biddle & Reath, a national law firm with 600 lawyers, identified emotional intelligence (EI), which involves the human side of lawyering, as a key competency more than six years ago. As part of that initiative, the firm brought in Dr. Larry Richard to give a half-day workshop on emotional intelligence skills and how they are part of lawyers’ leadership ability.

Courtney Wylie, Professional Development & Well-Being Specialist at Drinker Biddle, explained that EI skills are crucial for attorneys. “Lawyers are leaders. They are protectors of our rights and our freedoms,” Wylie said. “They are often advising clients that are in times of crisis, and this can pose a large emotional burden on them.”

Because EI comprises self-awareness, regulation of one’s own emotions, and the ability to be aware of the emotions of others and how they impact effective relationship-building or conflict resolution, it is important for lawyers to understand how their own stress can impact not only their own performance but also interfere with client interactions. Indeed, law schools often train lawyers to set aside emotions in favor of crafting impartial logical arguments, or simply to “ignore what you’re feeling and to just try to lay out facts.” However, neuroscience tell us that making a decision without emotions is physiologically impossible.

Wylie, who joined the firm in 2016, was part of the professional development team that built out LEAD, the firm’s in-house legal education and attorney development program. Explaining the significance of incorporating EI into the program, Wylie said that “[s]o much of EI correlates with ethical and moral judgment, higher happiness, and lower rates of mental health issues and substance abuse.”

Breaking EI learning into digestible parts

Wylie designed the firm’s EI training with an eye towards balancing passive and active learning environments. While the ability to practice and reflect on skills is essential for the development of EI, the passive learning environment is used to meet CLE requirements and educate attorneys on the relevance of EI to their daily legal practice.

To that end, the training is broken up into three parts: self-awareness, self-management, and leading with EI.

Part one: Self-awareness

As Wylie explains, the first part of the training focuses mainly on self-awareness because it is the linchpin of EI. Key components include defining what EI is, how the legal education curriculum and profession views emotions, why this approach was developed, and what happens when it is not balanced with an understanding and recognition of the emotions that affect all of us.

This part of the training involves “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” exercises that challenge the lawyers and staff to identify emotions only by using pictures of people’s eyes. The hook for lawyers is to tie this back to relatable stories in practice and in their own lives, Wylie explains.

For example, to connect it to their lives outside of work, Wylie starts by asking the lawyers when they’re engaged in an argument or dispute with a loved one, how many have heard the statement “Don’t be a lawyer with me right now!” Unsurprisingly, all the lawyers raised their hands. This simple but effective technique is used to underscore the point that lawyers’ default mode is to approach interpersonal interactions analytically because it is a skill that serves them well in practice.

To link it to the day-to-day practice, Wylie explains part of the training is to show that the firm’s clients need to be able to trust in their lawyers’ ability to handle situations and remain calm under fire. At the same time, better client relationships emerge when the lawyer can take the perspective of the client as well. “By default, lawyers will ignore the emotions clients are giving us, and then the clients feel like we’re not connecting with them, and that we are not listening and don’t understand their circumstances,” Wylie said.

To complement the training, the firm provides opportunities for their attorneys and staff to attend mindfulness training as an additional tool to increase self-awareness and encourage them to start paying attention to their emotions.

Part two: Self-management

The second part of the training involves learning and practicing self-management tools to improve emotional regulation. The lawyers and professionals learn a number of cognitive and behavioral strategies they can begin to implement immediately. These strategies allow them to engage in more effective emotional regulation by allowing them to release and offset the emotional labor that occurs from regular legal practice, leading to increased mental health and well-being.

During this part of the training, the research regarding surveys of legal client satisfaction in recent years is reviewed along with examples elicited from the lawyers themselves on where these skills have or might have resulted in better outcomes. Following the session, the learners are asked to pick one of the strategies to start implementing over the next several weeks and to spend time reflecting on the result.

Part three: Leading with EI

The final part of the training, which has not been implemented yet at Drinker Biddle, will focus on expanding the knowledge and tools from one’s self to others. The training will begin with the lawyers and professionals creating a vision statement and an action plan to continue learning, and development after the training on their own and by sharing what they’ve learned with others.

Best practices for implementation

Wylie identified some factors that were helpful in implementing the training program, including:

Senior sponsorship — To Wylie’s surprise, there was little to no resistance to the EI training, which is completely voluntary. In fact, the early attendance and engagement of several senior partners was likely key to the success of the program.

“The more that people saw their leaders and their partners in these rooms talking about what they learned, the more comfortable they were talking about them and being interested in it,” elaborates Wylie, adding that without much effort, the EI training has been received well because, “our leaders encourage our lawyers and professionals to make time to attend.”

Gamification — Wylie used gamification to incentivize ongoing engagement and use of the tools that were taught. For example, the firm encouraged lawyers to go out to lunch with a colleague and connect with them to earn points in on-going well-being challenges.

Measuring the impact — Understanding the impact may not be seen immediately and the true measure of effectiveness will take time to determine, Wylie is hopeful for a positive impact based on anecdotes and comments received from the trainees.

One partner that had completed part one of the training, for example, shared how he had used EI when interacting with a former client that had not done business with the firm for 10 years. Using this technique, the partner sought to understand the individual’s goals, motivations, and needs as well as those of the overall client for whom the individual worked before responding.

The partner then used this information to craft his response, which allowed him to better serve the client. As a result, the partner was hired by the client, gaining the client’s business after a decade-long drought.

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