Saturday, December 1, 2018
Empathy (noun): The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another . . .
In many ways, this is all we need as persuasive writers: Empathy. Writing from a place where you understand your readers' "feelings, thoughts, and experiences." When you tap into empathy, you are tapping into your reader's fears and desires. You're connecting with them on a human level--and they listen.
Rather than do what I usually do, and share some tools and legal writing examples, I want to share a personal (and extraordinary) experience that showed me how powerful this device is. And why it's worth adopting as a life-long goal in your writing.
I've been fascinated by the bar exam for years. But figuring out why people fail is what really intrigues me. And I spend a good chunk of my free time working to help repeat failers get over whatever is stopping them from passing. Last year, I wrote an article about my work with these folks.
My article shared some tricks for taking the bar, but I didn't write it for that. I wrote it simply to help people understand what it means to fail a bar exam. To be one of those people who graduated from law school, often did perfectly well, and will generally make an excellent attorney. But they failed. So now they live in limbo. Condemned to wait and watch as all of their friends start shiny new attorney jobs.
In short, I wrote the article as a plea for empathy. And I had some insight on this point. Something that I didn't share then: much of the motivation to write that article came from knowing a student who had committed suicide after failing several exams. The motivation also came from having seen, again and again, the toll that failing takes on people.
Fast forward a year and a half: that simple article is easily the most widely read and successful piece I've ever written. The writing is nothing special. Nor are the tips. But I receive emails and phone calls every single week from people who read it and want to talk about their own bar exam demons. I've written plenty of articles, and many of them have been read by plenty of people. And for most, I might get a few emails or comments. But for this bar exam article, I've received hundreds.
What is so powerful about this short, simple article that compels so many readers to act on it? I can chalk it up to nothing else but that I captured some measure of what I always aim for, but rarely hit: empathy for a group of readers. Empathy born from time listening to members of that group and trying to understand how they felt.
Nearly every email or call I get starts with a version of the same intro--always about how something in the writing resonated with their experience. Here are a couple of emblematic samples (I won't include the authors' names, but each gave me permission to share):
The reason I am reaching out is because your article was inspiring. I felt like no one understood what I was going through until I read this. That others have taken this same path before gives me hope.
I am writing to thank you for your article. I’m feeling pretty down at the moment and your article is the first (and only) one that articulated how I feel.
No one seems to understand how it feels to fail this thing. I can't thank you enough for sharing with people a little of how it feels.
In other words, the writing resonated with what they were feeling. What they were experiencing. And that resonance was so strong that they wanted to act on it.
I know this isn't all that scientific. But the aftermath of this article has been profound for me. Aside from the countless wonderful (and often tear-filled) conversations it brought, I can't help but believe in the power of empathy.
Write in a way that resonates with what your reader has felt and experienced, and I suspect you'll be on to something as a lawyer. I bet it's one reason why storytelling is such a powerful legal writing device. One that every top advocate uses, and uses well. Good stories resonate with our readers' feelings and experiences in a way that feels like empathy. Like the writer understands them.
I will leave it to other posts to talk about ways you might go about finding empathy for your readers as a legal writer. I imagine it will involve more time thinking through what your readers care about, and more time telling stories that will resonate with their experiences.
Oh, and please consider giving someone who failed the bar a hug today. They probably need it.
Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here.