What Does It Mean to Be a Human Lawyer?

This month, I decided to write on the theme of “humanity in the legal profession.” When I settled on this theme, it seemed at first like an easy concept to impart. But, as I sometimes realize when I sit down to write a brief, the writing process quickly reveals the gaps in my understanding. There are lots of things I love about writing but this aspect, humbling as it can be sometimes, is one of my favorites. It forces you to drill down on small things you might have otherwise overlooked.

In this case, the small thing I had overlooked was what does “humanity in the legal profession” really mean? Sure, I’d used the term “human lawyer” many times. I had considered to myself, if not said aloud, that I strived to show what it means to be a human lawyer. Still, I’d never thought about defining the term. When you write about a subject (especially as a lawyer) that’s usually a good starting point.

In this case, though, a dictionary definition was not helpful because I wasn’t trying to understand what the word “humanity” meant. Instead, I was trying to understand what it meant to demonstrate one’s humanity as a lawyer. To be sure, I had witnessed this in several ways in my own life. My family is filled with lawyers and so I was blessed to see regular examples of heartfelt care and concern expressed through legal guidance growing up. As a practicing attorney myself, I’ve benefitted from humanity from my colleagues and opposing counsel. And, on my better days at least, I have employed it too.

But still, the idea of humanity in law implies that it can’t be limited to just one lawyer’s lived experience. Fortunately for me, I happen to have a pretty robust LinkedIn network. So, I asked my lawyer friends there to tell me what being a human lawyer meant to them. Here are some of their answers.

Several respondents told me that humanity as lawyers had to do with how we show up in the world:

I think we are all human lawyers at heart. But we learn to muzzle our humanity to show up as who we think our clients want to see. Ironically, I think this is the exact opposite of what most clients crave. They want real, raw, empathy, humor, relationship. More transparency is the answer.

Still, it’s hard to swim upstream against the prevailing norms. I often encounter attorneys who are very reticent to share anything personal in their bio or express their personality in their content. This is a missed opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For the most part, clients choose you because of who you are and what you stand for. Not who you clerked for, your class rank, or the last case you won.

Marie Sotelo, B2B Content Marketing Consultant in Law/Compliance/Risk Management

I actually say this just about every day! Human-first lawyering is a huge part of in-house practice. Lawyers (just like other humans) like jokes, and play fantasy football, and have interests outside of work and listen to punk rock. We’re just humans who went to law school and we learned some things there that can help you.

Stephanie Solera, Deputy GC at Numerator

Still other lawyers told me that humanity in our profession means honoring our own emotions and the emotions of our clients:

Empathy. Empathy for your clients, coworkers, and opposing counsel.

Emmy Klint, General Counsel and Risk Mitigation Manager

I am a human lawyer because I can speak of practical solutions not just legal ones and advise people to take pathways that are less disruptive to their mental health if they can still meet their basic goals.

Lynda Hinkle, Esq., Attorney, Law Firm Owner (Family, Estates, Guardianships), Family and Estate Mediator, and Real Estate Agent

Some lawyers even suggested that our humanity is essential for counseling clients, even when that means admitting to the limitations of the law:

As lawyers, our role involves “counseling” sometimes more than providing legal advice. Talking your client down from the ledge or from pursuing a vendetta or burning bridges or to encouraging the client to cut all ties and have a “divorce” from the opposing party. I handle probate, trust, and fiduciary litigation, which involves blended family situations or sibling discord. I remind people that sometimes, to be there for yourself, you have to “divorce” or disengage from that toxic or opposing party family member and maybe someday you might be able to see each other at Christmas but not this year. I believe in acknowledging our feelings and then, asking what can you do to feel that again or not feel that again. Acknowledge the client is stressed but also encourage them to concentrate on the next step, not the end result.

Andrea Barr, Managing Attorney, Fiduciary Litigation

I think what can set you apart as “human” with clients is to be humble and admit when “the” answer isn’t clear or straightforward. I work in a science heavy area of law, with cases that are often full of unanswered questions of law. It’s hard sometimes for clients to understand that, but I have had many tell me they appreciate my honest and forthright answers… often after having talked to or worked with other attorneys prior. Sometimes a humble attitude is surprising to clients but it’s also earned loyalty and referrals.

Melissa A. H. , Environmental & Construction Attorney

Now, if like me, you have struggled with your humanity at times, don’t worry. A few of the respondents shared that you can remember or relearn your humanity even if, litigation for example, causes you to lose track of it for a while:

I bring humanity compassion and kindness to all my matters. I used to be a litigator and was becoming a jerk I switched to transactional work 17 years ago doing estate planning and business law. I now enjoy helping people set things up for the present and the future. I also perform about 240 hours of pro bono work every year. If there is anything that can be said for wisdom instilled by the elderly, it is treat people how you want to be treated and create memories because they are all you take with you and no one gets out alive.

Rev. Dr. Marc Paquette, Senior Corporate Counsel/General Counsel

I learned to be a human lawyer after experiencing the personal tragedy of one of my clients. I finally saw the true terrible price of a legal malpractice claim and realized that to help my clients (and myself) I needed a more holistic approach. I took a step back from just defending legal mal lawsuits and now attempt to address lawyers’ problems before disaster strikes.

Jeff Cunningham, Esq. Outside General Counsel for Law Firms Partner at Goldberg Segalla

So, there we have it. Humanity in the legal profession is about showing up as ourselves. It’s about honoring our emotions and those of others. It shines through brightest, perhaps, when we counsel with practical as well as legal advice. And it can even serve as our north star to get ourselves back to goodness if we lose our way in the difficulties of law practice.

Maybe there’s no unifying definition of what it means to demonstrate humanity in the legal profession, but it’s good that there are many examples of it. If you want more, check out The Human Lawyer Podcast. I was a guest on this podcast a few years ago and it curates the stories of some fantastic human lawyers across the country.

How do you show your humanity in your life and work?

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out our founder’s new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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