My students get tired of hearing me saying that lawyering is all about empathy. (See, at least I understand my students’ feelings!) A lawyer cannot practice effectively without understanding their clients’ situations from their clients’ points of view, recognizing their clients’ emotions to the extent they play a role in their legal decision making, identifying what having a lawyer and utilizing the legal system means to them, and knowing what their clients’ visions of a successful outcome is.
My study of this over the summer led me to Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. In it, Jamison writes essays that explore people’s emotions and mindsets. Her subjects range from athletes who participate in the Barkley Marathons, a race where people cover over 100 miles over several days through almost impossible terrain and torturous obstacles that almost no one completes; a prisoner who was one of those athletes, looking particularly at what confinement means to a person whose daily life as an endurance athlete involves active movement that prison takes away; people with Morgollons, a disease where people believe thread or other matter is growing out of them, a condition that they clearly believe is very real that others question; and parents of child murder victims of the West Memphis Three, looking at how their grief is taken away from them and turned to anger when perpetrators are identified, and then looking at their subsequent feelings when it becomes clear that those alleged perpetrators might not have done it. She even tries to explain and understand the artistic genre she calls “wounded women”—the Ani DiFranco, Sylvia Plath, Carrie expressions of female pain (I admit that I struggled with this one).
In the words of Merve Emre in an interview from the Paris Daily Review reproduced for this book, Jamison is a writer and observer without being a collaborator or participant. When subjects are familiar to her, she applies her own experience, like when she describes being an actress for a medical school and playing patients for students who are learning to take histories. In this role, she can think about how the patients and the doctor’s must feel from her own experience in the medical system. She can also step back and be an observer while playing that role, as she watches new professionals as they try to develop empathy.
I want my students and myself to be empathetic observers like Jamison. The Empathy Exams will help me think through how to discuss working with our clients this year. What inquiry is necessary to understand our clients’ emotions better? How can we observe our clients and explore their feelings without fully joining their vision and their world? How much does sympathy play a role in empathy—can we have empathy for clients who are not entirely saintly or when we do not necessarily like them? Can we understand their point of view without agreeing with it? How much are we like or not like particular clients—can we draw on our own experience? Do we have to learn about our clients’ community experiences and mores to understand them?
I am looking forward to more of this exploration in my clinic this Fall!
Many of Jamison’s essays are published separately. Click on the links above to get a taste of her work.