All About Estates

Empathy and Advocacy

Today marks the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. It is also the first time that the anniversary falls on a school day.  On this date in 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 first grade students, 6 educators, and his mother, before turning the gun on himself.

Following the shootings, there was an outpouring of support for Newtown: donations of over $2.6 million, along with tokens of affection. Poignantly, about 60,000 teddy bears were sent to the town. Residents describe feeling overwhelmed by the national and international reaction (the population of Newtown is about 27,000 and median family income over $100,000). And yet, as one British newspaper article put it, people throughout the world wanted to do something, anything, to express their grief and show their solidarity with the residents of the town.

[Right now you are probably thinking, get to the point – what does this have to do with estates?]

For litigants involved in estate or guardianship litigation, the upcoming holiday season can be a difficult time. The memories of past Christmases or Hanukkahs can make this year sad and melancholic. The disconnect between the powerful allure of advertising – that this is a season for family togetherness and shared traditions – can make the season doubly hard to swallow.

As lawyers, we are trained to think and act rationally and logically; to be advocates on our client’s behalf to get them the results they want. But a component of our job is also to be alert to our client’s emotional state. For instance, mediation may not be suitable yet if the grief and anger over having lost a loved one is too raw.

Do we also need to empathize with our clients, though? Empathy, which comes from the German Einfühlung, “feeling into”, is the attempt to put oneself in another person’s shoes, to see the world through their eyes. It is a relatively new concept, only about a century old, but has gained traction in popular thought. For instance, Barak Obama has spoken about its importance during at least one commencement speech.  It is also the subject of study in neuroscience.

Some legal academics have argued that this is a non-essential quality which might be outsourced to a specialist and, in the future, to artificial intelligence. Some practitioners also caution that we are not our clients’ therapists. Indeed, a lawyer needs to know when to suggest that the client seek out a medical professional if the client’s problems are outside the realm of one’s expertise.

The rub is that we can never actually see the world through another’s eyes. (Though arguably by being moved by literature, music, visual art and drama we come close.) But we can try. And I would argue by trying to empathize with our clients’ situation, we will not only become better advocates, but also be better-liked by our clients.

Because who doesn’t like teddy bears?

Thanks for reading,

Angelique Moss

About Angelique Moss