Emotion Regulation Skills: What Every Lawyer Needs to Excel in Court

Though law is objective to the core, it can inspire – and provoke – some seriously heavy feelings. Criminal charges and drawn-out custody battles scare and enrage people. Even drier legal proceedings like drafting a will can be wrought with anxiety and ego. To bring rationality to these charged battlefields, lawyers need to have a firm grip on their own emotions and know how to navigate the feelings of others. They need emotional intelligence and the emotion regulation skills that come with it.

hiding under umbrella

Emotion regulation isn’t just a matter of setting emotions aside. It requires introspection, social awareness, and the ability to release emotions in healthy ways — things not often taught in law school. For the lawyer who wants to take a pragmatic approach to an intrinsically subjective subject, here’s what to know about emotional intelligence and how to use it in the courtroom.

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What Is Emotional Intelligence and Emotion Regulation? A Four-Part Approach

Simply put, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and control one’s own emotions and perceive the emotions of others. On the surface, this is a relatively simple concept, but in practice, it can be difficult to make an objectively good decision when bogged down by sometimes irrational feelings. However, this can be possible when one separates emotional intelligence into its constituent parts.

While it can be broken down in multiple ways, New York Times bestselling author Dr. Daniel Goleman and EI expert Professor Richard E. Boyatzis say there are four essential elements of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness. Emotionally intelligent people are aware of their own emotions. They question them, notice patterns, and know their emotional triggers.
  2. Self-management. After recognizing an emotion, high EI people can curtail their impulsive emotional responses. For instance, they understand that loudly celebrating a promotion in the office may be inappropriate. Instead, they graciously thank their bosses and celebrate when they get home.
  3. Social awareness. Emotional intelligence extends beyond oneself. It also includes having empathy and being able to read others’ emotions.
  4. Relationship management. Emotions impact others and should often be expressed in a relationship-appropriate way. For example, if a lawyer feels pessimistic about a case, he or she may express that emotion differently towards a firm partner versus their client.

When combined, these four aspects of emotional intelligence influence emotion regulation, a term used to describe how a person responds (or doesn’t respond) to an emotion. There’s no better real-world example of this than cross-examining a hostile witness.

An emotionally intelligent lawyer notices that a witness exhibits closed-off body language: crossed arms and no eye contact, for instance. As the examination continues, the witness’s answers are stilted and short. The lawyer feels frustrated, but to stay in the court’s good graces, the lawyer suppresses this feeling. Instead, they opt to appear friendly and open. By the end of the examination, the witness feels more comfortable and opens up.

This is only one example of the benefits of emotional intelligence in a legal context, but when viewed through a more scientific lens, EI appears to be more important to law than many give it credit for.

witness in court

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence For Lawyers

Without emotional intelligence, lawyers may not be able to see the obstacles laid before them and their clients by the very nature of the human brain. Before approaching a legal matter rationally, one must understand how emotions affect what people do and how they think.

Negative Emotions Can Hinder the Brain’s Executive Functions

The brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, organization, problem-solving, and other goal-oriented skills. These are known as executive functions. These skills can be essential to drafting a legal argument. Unfortunately, research shows that emotions can get in the way of this in a subconscious way.

In a 2016 study of  153 undergrad students, researchers asked different groups of students to write about an unresolved anxiety-inducing situation, an anger-inducing situation, or neutral events from the day before. They then administered a test to analyze the students’ executive functions. Students who wrote about anxiety performed worse on the test than their peers.

Anxiety can manifest itself in seemingly unconnected ways like periodic insomnia, trouble concentrating, or general irritability. If a lawyer is self-aware enough to recognize these things as signs of anxiety, they can deal with it before it interferes with their work.

It’s Harder To Demonstrate Empathy When Experiencing Negative Emotions

When close friends or family get together, they sometimes fall into a pattern of mirroring each other. They speak similarly and use the same mannerisms to show they’re comfortable together in an often unconscious way.

Mirroring can keep people talking and diffuse tense legal negotiations. A divorce lawyer may use mirroring to help two parties come to agreeable terms. A corporate attorney may do it to seal an important business deal. When advising a new client, a criminal defense attorney may use it to build rapport and trust.

But research indicates that people experiencing negative emotions don’t automatically demonstrate this kind of empathy. It’s an effort — another thing to remember to do in an already busy courtroom or legal meeting.

Lawyers Face Unique Career-Based Stressors

As rewarding as it can be to help people from all walks of life tackle some of the greatest challenges they’ll ever face, being a lawyer can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. And like with any other career, it’s hard to keep work issues from affecting one’s overall mental state.

stressed lawyer at desk

Industry intelligence firm American Lawyer Media conducts an annual mental health survey amongst legal professionals. In 2020, 37% of the 3,200 law firm staff members surveyed said they suffered from depression. About 70% reported feelings of anxiety. While COVID-19 may have inflated these staggering statistics, they demonstrate how emotional intelligence for lawyers isn’t just important for gauging how a case might go, but for facing their own struggles with mental health.


Emotional self-awareness helps people recognize when their emotions turn into unhealthy mental states. Emotion regulation skills, along with therapy and enjoying precious down time, may be the barrier that blocks professional worries from turning into domestic issues.

Five Practical Emotion Regulation Skills The Modern Lawyer Needs

Emotion regulation is a pretty broad set of skills. For the common person, it might include doing breathing exercises when angry, fidgeting with a desk toy when anxious, or repeating self-affirming phrases in their head to boost their confidence.

While those practices are certainly useful for lawyers on a personal level, there are a few emotion regulation skills that can help them negotiate any kind of legal situation.

Active Listening

Legal documents and arguments are normally a question of what: what regulations need to be followed, what laws defendants are in violation of, and what the terms of a contract are. But sometimes, how those facts are delivered can change the actual outcome. By actively listening to clients, witnesses, and judges, lawyers can adjust their approach to increase the likelihood of success.

Take estate planning, for instance. Financial law and probate court procedures are pretty cut and dry, but the emotions a family experiences throughout the process can be volatile. When a lawyer listens to how each individual family member feels about the will, they may be able to avoid ugly arguments and disperse their client’s assets without delay.

Allowing Others To Go Through Their Own Emotions

A situation a lawyer deals with every day may be new and scary for clients. Giving clients time to regulate their own emotions can prevent the situation from becoming unnecessarily emotionally charged.

Positive Future-Focused Thinking

Whether it’s a mistrial or a stoic business executive that won’t compromise, legal roadblocks can make a lawyer question their professional prowess or career decisions. But these obstacles aren’t often career-ending and can sometimes be circumvented with creative legal maneuvering. Staying focused on that fact can make even the most insurmountable odds seem manageable.

Separating Emotions and Ethics

In one’s personal life, an emotional outburst can damage relationships. In the legal world, it can have career-ending repercussions. Even though a heightened emotional state doesn’t necessarily lead to willful misconduct, it can lead to costly mistakes for a lawyer, their firm, and clients. When all else fails, take time to cool off and approach issues with fresh eyes and a rational mind.

Partitioning Work and Personal Time

Lawyers in law school or new to their firms don’t often have the luxury of having tons of off-time. But when that time comes, resist the urge to read and respond to routine work communications. Law school is an investment. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance protects it.

Combining Emotional Intelligence With Other Necessary Lawyer Skills

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the skills necessary to be a lawyer combine well with emotional intelligence. A lawyer’s knack for investigation can be bolstered by learning how to read people’s emotions. Active listening adds a precise, personal quality to argumentative ability. And empathy can turn a nebulous sense of justice for all into a lifelong passion for empowering people through ethical legal means.

For the potential law school student, this can be an empowering thought. If that thought still gives you pause, explore the many career paths a law degree can make possible. Then, find out what it takes to become a practicing lawyer in the state of your choice. From there, you can become the emotionally intelligent lawyer clients love working with and will return to at the slightest hint of trouble.