The Transformative Power of Empathy

Life as a corporate lawyer often demands the unexpected. That might be the notorious ‘allnighters’ of negotiation or review, it may be a sudden need for expertise in a new industry and, on occasion, it may mean jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice to somewhere wholly new. While the first two may be aided by coffee and Wikipedia, the third is altogether harder to prepare.

For some years now, law firms have been under scrutiny for a lack of ‘social mobility’. This UK term refers to the much lower likelihood of those from certain backgrounds in securing professional roles, such as doctors, engineers and, of course, lawyers. Many firms have been working hard to widen access but the fact remains that many young lawyers still share a broadly similar background which neither lends itself to diversity nor to dealing with a much wider range of people, either close by or further afield.

Empathy means getting on with people. It requires confidence, interest and an ability to put oneself in another’s position. That is hard to do if – through no fault of your own – your work and social circles offer few opportunities to meet those from dramatically different backgrounds. And that is where volunteering comes into its own.

Linklaters engagement in its local communities is targeted at those neighbourhoods that are geographically close but economically distant. We work in schools to inspire learning and ambition, we support social entrepreneurs in solving local issues and we provide work experience to a range of people who need to get back into employment.

All of these opportunities require our people to work closely with individuals who have very different experiences of life and, often, very different perspectives and aspirations.

These are often eye-opening conversations as participants explore the context of one another’s lives. That means interest, listening and understanding and, over time, developing a real empathy for the other’s situation.

Acquiring this ability to engage brings obvious advantages to our business, not least in developing lawyers who are much more confident in working with those living entirely different lives. It sees them more quickly adapting to new places and more comfortably building meaningful new relationships. This, of course, leads them to delivering value to our clients much faster than would be the case if such confidence were lacking, providing ample evidence that previous volunteering experience is of real and tangible value.

At Linklaters, we volunteer first and foremost because we want to share our skills and experience with those who would otherwise be unable to access such support. Yet it is never a one-way relationship and the benefits we receive are many and varied. More importantly, they may also be unique as, I would argue, is the case in developing empathy for others. This can’t be taught on a course or read in a book; it can only be acquired through practice.

So, I would encourage all those involved with employee volunteering to look at their programmes through a more personal lens, a perspective that considers how their volunteers might grow this softest of skills. We have seen how our people have gained experience and insight that is simply not available elsewhere in a way that – even better – delivers social value. Moreover, it is an approach which is hugely cost-effective and which is immediately impactful on both sides. Building empathy is now a cornerstone of our programme and, in a world where social cohesion needs all the help it can get, I’d urge it to be a key part of yours too.

Matthew Sparkes is Head of Corporate Responsability at Linklaters LLP in London, where he looks after the firm´s responsible business activities globally as well as pro bono and community investment programmes.

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