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Empathy and the Law.

By Dr Marli Jooste (CSIP associate), and Caren Swanepoel, Managing Director of CSIP (Caren Swanepoel Industrial Psychologists). CSIP may be contacted on 067 930 5709 or

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"Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another's world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self …"

Plato's timeless wisdom captures the essence of empathy, urging us to consider the unseen struggles of others. In the realm of law, this principle becomes even more pertinent. In South Africa, the legal landscape is evolving, and there is a growing recognition of the importance of empathy and related interpersonal skills. Yet, stigma persists. The legal profession has traditionally valued toughness, resilience, and emotional detachment, expecting professionals to maintain an image of control and rationality. Consequently, acknowledging and discussing emotional challenges are still perceived as potentially damaging to one’s professional image.

Addressing this stigma is crucial for the legal profession in South Africa. By fostering an environment where empathy and emotional well-being are valued, the legal field can become more inclusive and supportive. This shift would enhance the well-being of legal professionals and improve client relations and overall legal outcomes. Embracing empathy and open dialogue about mental health can lead to a more compassionate and effective legal system. By challenging outdated norms and promoting a culture of understanding, the South African legal community can set a precedent for positive change, benefiting all parties involved.

The legal system, often perceived as rigid and impersonal, profoundly impacts the lives of individuals. Integrating empathy into legal practice can transform how justice is administered, making it more humane and equitable. For legal professionals, empathy is not only a tool for better understanding their clients but also a crucial means of self-preservation. The legal profession often exposes lawyers to the harrowing experiences of their clients, leading to secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma. This trauma occurs when legal professionals are exposed to the traumatic experiences of their clients, resulting in emotional and psychological stress like that experienced by the primary victims of trauma.

Empathy can be defined as the capacity to deeply understand and share the emotions of clients or those affected by legal proceedings while simultaneously managing the emotional toll that such understanding can bring. By cultivating empathy, lawyers can better navigate these emotional landscapes, ensuring they maintain their well-being while providing compassionate and effective representation. Thus, empathy serves as both a professional asset and a safeguard against the emotional toll of legal work, promoting resilience and mental health among legal professionals.

Empathy in this context involves:

  • Emotional Resonance: Legal professionals often connect with their clients' suffering, understanding their pain and distress on a profound level. This emotional resonance is a key aspect of empathy but can also lead to secondary trauma if not managed properly.

  • Cognitive Understanding: Beyond just feeling for their clients, empathetic legal professionals strive to understand the context and depth of their clients' experiences. This cognitive aspect allows them to advocate more effectively on their clients' behalf.

  • Compassionate Action: Empathy drives legal professionals to take actions that support and protect their clients, seeking justice and relief for them. This action-oriented empathy is crucial in the legal field but can be draining over time.

Legal professionals can adopt a more empathetic approach to protect themselves from and deal with secondary trauma through a multi-faceted approach, incorporating both individual and organizational strategies:


Conducting training and workshops focusing on developing empathy, active listening, effective communication skills, and stress management.

Establishing peer support groups and mentoring programs providing guidance, sharing mutual experiences and/or providing support.

Do not hesitate to contact mental health professionals to offer on-site support, debriefing and equipping legal professionals with the necessary coping skills.

  • Promote a culture of openness allowing open discussions about mental health and well-being in the workplace, reducing the stigma associated with seeking help.

  • Albeit hugely debated, consider more flexible work arrangements to allow for greater alignment of work and personal commitments.

  • Involve technology to allow access to apps or platforms to instil knowledge, as well as offer mindfulness exercises, meditation, and stress management techniques.

  • Provide awards, recognition, and/or incentives for those who exemplify empathy and emotional well-being, while also successfully contributing to a supportive workplace culture.


  • Engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga to increase self-awareness and reduce stress.

  • Regularly reflect on personal feelings and experiences through journaling to gain insights into emotional responses and manage stress effectively.

  • Regularly consult with a supervisor or mentor who can provide guidance, support, and an outside perspective on challenging cases.

  • Participate in training programs focused on developing empathy skills, which can include role-playing, active listening exercises, and workshops on emotional intelligence.

  • Educate yourself on trauma-informed legal practice, understanding how trauma impacts clients and how to approach them with sensitivity and care.

  • Clearly define work hours and personal time to ensure adequate rest and recuperation. Avoid taking work home whenever possible.

  • Establish and maintain regular self-care routines, including physical exercise, hobbies, and spending time with family and friends.

  • Be mindful of the number and types of cases taken on, avoiding an overwhelming caseload that can contribute to stress and burnout.

  • Utilize a team-based approach to case management, sharing responsibilities and providing mutual support among colleagues.

By integrating these strategies into their professional lives, legal professionals can enhance their empathetic approach while protecting themselves from the adverse effects of secondary trauma. This holistic approach benefits the professionals and improves the quality of service provided to clients, fostering a healthier and more compassionate legal practice.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Lexinfo CC.

CSIP (Caren Swanepoel Industrial Psychologists)


Posted: 11 June 2024


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