Emotional Intelligence: Know Thyself to Achieve Work and Life Balance

The Bencher—November/December 2016 

By Y. Jun Roh, Esquire

When questioned about why we, especially young attorneys, became lawyers, many idealistic responses come to mind: proving ourselves, making a difference, or changing the world one case at a time. The bottom line is that we all want to be great lawyers; however, being a great lawyer in the traditional sense means long hours, missed family vacations, and significant burnout. It can make you unhappy, which will affect not only your work but your personal life as well. Successfully balancing work and outside interests takes discipline and energy.

I believe the best way to balance work and outside interests is to apply the concept of emotional intelligence. Increasing self-awareness will make you a better lawyer and happier in your personal life, which means a more balanced life.

What is emotional intelligence?

According to Arturo Jaramillo, Esquire, and Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., emotional intelligence is the learned ability to recognize, understand, and respond to emotions, including your own and those of others with whom you interact. Enhanced awareness equips you to direct and manage yourself and your relationships with others more effectively by developing four skills: self-awareness (the ability to perceive and understand our own emotions and the behavior that flows predictably from those emotions); social awareness (the ability to perceive and understand the emotional cues and anticipate the responses/reactions of other people); self-management (the ability to apply this increased awareness to more effectively direct and manage ourselves); and relationship management (the effective use of increased awareness to build more effective and productive relationships with others and develop our own achievement and success).

Begin by learning to “step outside yourself,” observing and listening to your emotions and responses carefully and consistently. Then, track your behavior patterns in emotionally charged situations, learning how your emotions are affected by different people, moods, and situations, and thereby understanding what it is about the person or situation that evokes particular reactions or responses. For example, in a recent case, I received an email from opposing counsel written with a very aggressive and hostile tone. My first reaction was, “Okay, it is war, then!” But I re-read the email, taking out all of the emotionally driven statements by opposing counsel. Once I did this, I found that email was, in fact, a settlement offer.

Next, learn to pause, analyze, and problem-solve before responding to significant challenges: You can respond, but you do not have to react. Learn to catch your emotions before they initiate. Picture yourself in the moment based upon your new self-awareness, then reshape and direct your emotional reactions to the desired outcome. I did not respond to the settlement offer email right away and, instead, thought about it for a day, considering only the terms of the settlement.

Learn to empathize. Tune in by focusing on the emotions, actions, and reactions of others. I thought about the other attorney’s position and the reason for his tone. One of my mentors in my firm told me that the attorney was emotionally reacting to me and my client because that attorney might be representing a family member in this matter. I also asked my mentor about her experience in dealing with this type of email from opposing counsel.

Observe and listen to what other people are feeling and saying to understand their perspectives and sensibilities. In this way, you can determine the factors that influence them positively and negatively, and anticipate how others will react in specific situations. After reading the attorney’s e-mail one more time, I saw that he had proposed reasonable settlement terms. My client was upset about the e-mail because of the attorney’s tone. I explained to my client that we needed to only respond to the settlement offer, not to the tone. I also explained the potential consequences of going to war with the opposing party and this attorney.

Understanding that emotions play a role in every interaction between two people, use your emotions as a change catalyst to impact your interactions positively. Determine the skills that help you build and maximize your relationships with other people. My client agreed to a counteroffer to the settlement terms, and I sent an email to opposing counsel with no indication of the emotions I had felt earlier. I received a positive response from opposing counsel within a day; he had completely changed his tone! It felt like I was dealing with a totally different person. Eventually, we settled the case with happy clients on both sides.

Goals are key to balance

Practicing increased emotional intelligence in the practice of law can catalyze appropriate work and life balance, but you must define achievable goals in your work and in your outside interests. By using emotional intelligence with opposing counsel, I was able to avoid preparing and going to court and, instead, I went on a great beach vacation.

If you set the goal too high in your law practice, balancing your life and disciplining yourself will be challenging. Observe Plato’s maxim, “Know thyself.” One of the best ways to gain this knowledge is to reach out to a mentor. Learn from the many successful attorneys and judges who achieve work–life balance. Use emotional Intelligence to think outside the box about goals, evaluating yourself and your situation. Ask, Where am I? Where am I going? Where do I want to go? By objectively understanding your position in your surrounding circumstances, you will begin to recognize what you are good at, what you value most, and where you would like to be in the future.

It’s equally important to have goals around your interests outside of work. You can feel a huge difference in the quality of your work after having a nice and relaxing weekend or doing something you like to do, such as spending time with your family or playing sports. According to Karen Higginbottom’s article “Second Life,” when you have an interest that is great fun, then you are more energetic and focused when you go back to work and your emotional intelligence will be significantly increased.

Technology makes us available to our clients 24/7, making it difficult to switch off completely. Emotional intelligence can help. For example, even if you set a goal to golf every Saturday afternoon with your friends, balance will be elusive if you are thinking about your law practice while golfing. Increased emotional intelligence will help approach the two goals in a more productive and effective way.

Y. Jun Roh, Esquire is an associate at Cuddy & McCarthy LLP, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a member of Oliver Seth American Inn of Court.

© 2016 Y. Jun Roh, Esquire. This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.