The role of emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, Emotional Quotient, is critical to the success of lawyers who are leaders in their firms. But what, exactly, is EQ? EQ can be defined as skills people use to manage their own emotions wisely, to maximize their chances of influencing others constructively, and achieve their goals. Having high emotional intelligence helps professionals build stronger relationships, reduce stress, defuse conflict, and improve job satisfaction.
EQ, or “soft skills,” are essential for lawyers in private practice. Hitendra Wadhwa, Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School and founder of the Mentora Institute, which provides leadership training for executives at top corporations, said: “As a professional, the mastery of our discipline gets us only so far. We can be the greatest accountant, consultant or lawyer in the world, in terms of our financial, business or legal acumen, but if we do not know how to get along with people, how to turn around moments of conflict, how to collaborate with colleagues and partners, how to influence people and organizations, and how to get people to trust us, we will be nowhere close to our full potential.”
Law firms have more leaders than corporations of comparable size, revenue, and number of employees. Firms typically have a chair, a chief operating officer and/or chief financial officer, a management or executive committee, practice group heads, and leaders of numerous committees and practice, industry, and client groups. Most firms have tiers of equity and non-equity partners who cede decision-making responsibilities to these individuals. Developing EQ skills is extremely important for lawyers who aspire to become leaders and rainmakers.
Decades of scientific research show that high EQ significantly enhances a leader’s ability to create impact and profitability. In a study specifically targeting successful attorneys, Irene Taylor, a consultant, and reporter, examined the EQ of Canada’s top lawyers. Taylor profiled the top 25 corporate litigators, the top 40 under 40, the top 30 dealmakers, the top 25 women lawyers, and the top 25 general counsel. In each of these groups, the leading lawyers’ average EQ scores were significantly higher than the average EQ scores compared with the several hundred lawyers in the study’s data base. The top achievers’ EQ strengths included, among other qualities, independence, optimism, problem-solving, and stress tolerance.
Notwithstanding scientific research, some lawyers believe that being the “smartest person” in the courtroom, boardroom, or on the Zoom call solely will catapult them to the management committee or ingratiate them with top clients. When presented with a complex legal problem, rather than leading with “no,” given potentially negative legal implications, lawyers with a high EQ, which leads to flexible, out-of-the box thinking, are more apt to present clients with alternatives. Still others, however, may sense that their “soft skills” – pun intended – need honing to reach the leadership heights to which they aspire, but how?
The good news is EQ skills can be learned and improved upon by every lawyer, regardless of position or experience level. Through coaching and practice, lawyers can learn new behavioral approaches that will become habitual. Be persistent, however, as there are no “quick fixes.” Every behavioral expert has a different theory regarding the time required to acquire new skills. James Clear, author of the best-seller, Atomic Habits, writes that it can take anywhere from two to eight months before a new behavior becomes automatic. Malcolm Gladwell’s well known “10,000 hours rule” states that it takes 10,000 hours – 416 days — of dedicated practice to master new skills.
Let’s discuss, for example, cultivating optimism and stress tolerance, two high-caliber EQ leadership strengths. Lawyers traditionally are trained to believe that a doubtful, skeptical mind leads to excellent legal work by accounting for all risks and contingencies. Yet, optimism, which puts goals ahead of risks, leads to purposeful leadership. This quality inspires confidence in clients and colleagues. For the record, optimism is not about spouting upbeat and ultimately meaningless platitudes. Optimism, rather, is choosing to view setbacks and outright failures as temporary and not permanent.
Practicing optimism is choosing not to personalize failures or mistakes by believing, “I always screw things up,” or “I have the worst luck.” Optimists know that there are elements in a failed situation beyond their control, but they are realistic about the aspects they can control. Optimists believe that they will do a better job of managing what’s within their control the next time. This involves cultivating a positive mindset about skills and attributes.
- Try integrating this brief exercise into your day: be mindful and pay attention to daydreams, including thoughts, scenarios, and outcomes you think about while you’re in the shower or performing routine tasks. Are you rehearsing for success or failure in these musings? If you notice your daydreams are reinforcing failure, force yourself to alter the outcome so that you emerge with a positive result or as the outright victor.
The goal of building stress tolerance, i.e., to face difficulties calmly, without falling apart or fearing that you will, is essential to lawyers who aspire to be leaders. Given the intense pressures inherent in the legal profession, building stress tolerance can help improve the lives of every lawyer, as 90% of emotional disorders and physical illnesses have strong stress-related elements. Yet, a healthy stress tolerance is essential for leadership, which enables you to maintain a clear head and the ability to solve problems under pressure. To increase stress tolerance, try these exercises daily.
- Take worry breaks. If you constantly worry, you know that telling yourself “don’t worry,” doesn’t help. While it may seem counter-intuitive, millions of people have found relief in scheduling “worry time.” If you’re worried about something, schedule 10-20 minutes daily, with worrying about that issue to be your sole focus. Focused worrying often leads to effective problem-solving, but that’s not the intended outcome. During non-worry time, when worrying thoughts pop into your mind, tell yourself, “don’t think about this now. I will worry about it at my next worry time.” For this exercise to work, you must schedule it.
- Implement practices into your day to reduce stress levels. If you’re feeling time pressure, stop looking at the clock, or remove it. Minimize multi-tasking; don’t scroll through emails while on Zoom calls, for example. Don’t check your phone randomly and constantly; schedule times to check your phone, and stick to the schedule. Don’t work right up to bedtime; turn your devices off, and keep them out of your bedroom when trying to sleep.
Lawyers who use EQ skills to enhance their potential contribute to the top and bottom lines. Those who are rainmakers create trusted relationships that can remain lucrative sources of revenue for many years. Those with leadership competencies can lead their firms to enduring profitability regardless of the economic climate. These are goals that are within every lawyer’s grasp, among those who purposefully set out to achieve a high EQ.
Sheryl Odentz is the Founder and President of Progress in Work LLC, which specializes in coaching for business development, executive and leadership, and career transitions. www.progressinwork.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was published in the October 2022 edition of Marketing The Law Firm in ALM’s Law Journal Newsletters.