Parallel session 4b: Emotion, empathy and relationships

by Paul Maharg on 06/02/2015

I’m chairing so comments will be shorter.  First up, Jenny Richards, Flinders U., on ‘ Developing a sociolegal theory of criminal lawyering: increasing wellbeing through holistic engagement with clients’.  She focused on both her work as a lecturer at Flinders, and as a lawyer at the Criminal Bar.  Managing client emotions were a key need in criminal practice; but how to approach client relationships in a way that promotes wellness?  She emphasised the sociolegal nature of criminal law, and that there was a need to theorise.  She takes a critical realist approach.  Criminal lawyers she argued do sociolegal work, but often without a critical basis.  Intriguingly she mentioned theological covenant…  She started by stating lawyers are not social workers; but being the lawyer = holistic client engagement.  How can we best achieve this? Citing an example, she put forward the idea of covenant and lawyer-client relationships. In OT & NT there are both community and individual covenants, including the Abrahamic covenant, between God & humankind.  Human covenants are different — eg marriage.  She made a distinction between covenants and contracts, eg a covenantal promise has a relational basis: expressed within a professional context, whereas a contract has a legal basis quite separate from the relational basis.

Jenny drew on US literature on the advantages of covenant, which reflects ongoing nature of relationship with long-term clients.  It makes the need for holistic approaches to legal issues explicit, and she drew upon examples from her practice as a lawyer to illustrate this.  She cited better client wellbeing and practitioner wellbeing as outcomes of this covenantal approach.  She asked for research on what is working and what not, in terms of good lawyering in this context.

Next, Adiva Sifris, ‘Measuring empathy in law students and the relationship with student wellbeing’.  The paper was co-written with Brett Williams, from Health Sciences.  The project background: Monash led an OLT grant promoting empathic behaviour among students in the health sciences.  The toolkit had a DVD with sims, and they analysed whether the sims could be used to promote empathic behaviours.  They discovered that empathy can be taught.  There is evidence of psychological distress among law students — she cited Leahy et al 2010 study at Adelaide U.  Her pilot study aimed to determine empathy levels in law students; determine gendered differences in the empathy levels; differences in levels, ages, and courses; to compare empathy of law students with those of students in healthcare; to consider whether there is a correlation between the degree of empathy and learning (not sure if I got this final point right).

She outlined her approaches to empathy – a facet of emotional intelligence, and a contributor to positive mental health.  People with empathy, the research shows, make better lawyers because it’s essential for good comms, it enhances lawyer client relationship and improves clients levels of client satisfaction.  They used the Jefferson Scale for Physician Empathy Health Professional, adapted for law students.  20 questions using 1-7 scale.  Survey was administered at the start of a lecture, in Torts and Lawyers’ ethics.  274 students participated, 184 female, 91 male, and she went through the stats.  Results: health sciences students had a mean score of 113-18, and law students  had a mean of 96.  113 was considered low in health sciences.  There was a UK study by Wilson et al 2012 o empathy, which again measured law against nursing and pharmacy, and again law cam out lowest – 95.3 in first year, more in third year.  Did courses enrolled in make a difference?  BA Law was one of the lowest, with BA Commerce lowest of all, Aerospace highest — surely the numbers are probably too low to make any significant difference here?  But interesting all the same, and the audience certainly found it fascinating.  Future research — there needs to be a longitudinal study; more directed surveying in relation to age, year, course; survey required at stressful and non-stressful periods; and there is a need to teach empathy and survey after that teaching.  Very good project in the making.

Finally, Liz Keogh, ANU, on ‘Promoting wellness by increasing competence in dealing with emotion.’  It’s an action research project arising out of family law.  She focused on clients’ emotions and lawyers’ emotions, and emotional intelligence – which theory? and the pilot project.  She uses Mayer & Salovey’s 1997 ‘four branch’ model of emotional intelligence: identifying emotions, emotional facilitation of thinking, understanding and then regulation of emotions (if I have that right).  She outlined the proxy interviews that were created at ANU, and gave three examples of them.  Students watch the video recording of an interview.  Professional script writer used to put the script together, actor used to portray the character.  Students are asked what did they experience when watching the video.  Asked what influence whether they liked the character — ie getting students to identify emotions and begin the EI process.  Students then go on to draft affidavits, and get to email the client for details, and see what all other students are asking.  While this is ongoing, Liz comments on another forum on what is effective and ineffective re the details sought, etc.  Mirroring language is a typical issue, where the lawyer can mitigate the distress of the client in talking about stressful situations.

Students do five pieces of reflective writing on the experience of the project. Examples of issues arising — students talk about not being able to do enough for a client in certain circumstances, a feeling of helplessness.  Where to in the future?  The course is taught completely online, so if IE is taught online, then it’s proof that the web can be used for this purpose.  Liz wants to measure IE before & after, write up the project to date, do a longitudinal study,  and is interested to see who it is affecting more, eg in the ‘fishbowl’, where there are vicarious learners.  Fascinating project, and with lots of future research that can be done on the pilot.

Great session!  Thanks to the speakers…

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