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Understanding emotional intelligence and its role in litigation

Emotional intelligence (EI), once regarded as a soft skill that belonged only in the periphery, has surged to the forefront of legal discourse. It has become a critical tool for litigators in particular.

In the adversarial world of litigation, where stakes are high and nerves often fray, the role of a litigator isn’t just about understanding the nuances of the law – it’s also about understanding people.

That means litigators must go beyond mere legal acumen to truly connect with the human elements of a case: the clients, the witnesses, the jury, and even the opposition.

Some people believe that emotional intelligence is something you’re born with. Either you have it, or you don’t. Fortunately, that’s not true — EI is closely related to social skills, and like all skills, you can build it with practice.

What is EI?

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify, understand, and manage one’s own emotions, as well as to recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others.

Let’s break that down. A person with high EI has all of these abilities:

  • Self-awareness (recognizing your own emotions)
  • Self-regulation (controlling disruptive impulses and moods)
  • Motivation (being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement)
  • Empathy (understanding the emotional makeup of other people)
  • De-escalation (the ability to diffuse tense situations)
  • Social skills (building relationships and navigating social networks)


High EI is linked to better relationships, mental well-being, and professional success across various fields.

It is also a key element of effective leadership.

You can see how EI is valuable in a courtroom, right? At the very least, the ability to navigate tense situations with empathy and self-regulation is absolutely key for any litigator.

The role of EI in all phases of litigation

In every phase of litigation, the law provides the structure, but it’s the human emotions that fill the narrative. An attorney equipped with emotional intelligence is better poised to navigate this narrative effectively.

In short, emotionally intelligent attorneys have the skills to ensure that the legal journey, regardless of its outcome, is handled with empathy, understanding, and strategic acumen.

Let’s take a more detailed look at how EI impacts litigation at various stages of the game.


Emotional intelligence begins to play its role long before the court proceedings officially commence.

Understanding client emotions and managing expectations:

At the outset of a legal case, clients often feel strong emotions. Recognizing and validating these emotions is vital for building trust.

An attorney with high EI can provide not just legal advice, but also emotional support, ensuring that clients feel heard and understood. Moreover, by gauging the client’s emotional state, attorneys can set realistic expectations, minimizing the risk of disappointments and conflicts later on.

Emotional preparation for written discovery and document production:

For clients who’ve never participated in litigation before, things like interrogatories or requests for documents can seem highly invasive or even offensive.

An attorney with emotional intelligence can empathize with those strong feelings and help the clients understand that written discovery is a normal part of the process.

Emotional preparation for depositions and interrogations:

Depositions can be emotionally charged events.

An attorney who can empathize with a witness or party can better prepare them for what lies ahead.

Additionally, your ability to read the emotions of the opposing party during a deposition can offer valuable insights into their strategy and motivations.


The courtroom is a theater of human emotions, and this is where EI makes a good attorney into a great one. Here’s how:

Reading the jury’s and witnesses’ emotions:

Jurors, despite their best intentions (and instructions to the contrary) are often influenced by their emotions. An attorney with keen emotional intelligence can read the subtle cues given off by jurors and tailor arguments to resonate with them.

Similarly, understanding a witness’s emotional state can help in determining the right moment to press for more information or when to back off.

Handling emotions during court proceedings:

Trials can be tumultuous and filled with unexpected twists and turns. A litigator must remain calm, composed, and adaptive, even under intense scrutiny or provocation.

By mastering their own emotions, attorneys can think more clearly, making better strategic decisions.

Additionally, it’s crucial to manage your client’s emotions, especially if they are testifying.

Effective cross-examinations and persuasive arguments leveraging EI:

Cross-examinations are a dance of logic and emotion. Recognizing when a witness is becoming defensive, fearful, or overly confident can provide an attorney with strategic advantages.

Furthermore, crafting closing arguments that appeal not just to the jury’s logic but also to their emotions can be the key to swaying their verdict.


The end of a trial doesn’t necessarily mean the end of emotional involvement.

Managing client reactions to verdicts:

Whether it’s a win, loss, or a settlement, clients will have strong emotional reactions to the outcome. You must be prepared to handle these emotions and offer guidance on next steps.

Emotional considerations during potential appeals or settlement negotiations post-verdict:

If a case is moving to an appeal, or if there are post-trial negotiations for settlements, emotions are likely to run high.

An attorney with developed EI can better gauge when to push for more favorable terms and when to compromise.

Developing EI as a litigator

We told you that you can build this skill. This is how:

#1. Recognize the importance of continuous learning

As with any skill, understanding and managing emotions requires consistent effort. Actively seek knowledge about emotional intelligence, its components, and its practical application in legal contexts.

Books are a great place to start. They’re a lot more in-depth than any article on the internet can possibly be, and reading a book has a profound impact on your brain. In fact, some research suggests that reading about something is almost the same, neurologically speaking, as living that experience.

You might choose to immerse yourself in the world of emotional intelligence, or you can pick a couple of specific skills to learn deeply.

If in-person learning is more your style, there are plenty of classes and even retreats designed to help you build more emotional intelligence. A quick internet search can show you options near you.

#2. Practical exercises and habits

Developing EI can start with simple habits.

Reflective practices such as journaling, mindfulness meditation, and active listening exercises can be invaluable. They not only help attorneys become more attuned to their own emotions, but also enhance their ability to pick up on emotional cues from others.

Remember to practice your EI skills in social interactions, too.

How do you practice in social situations? It helps to pick a single skill you want to master. Active listening is a good one, but you can also focus on empathy, body language mirroring, or personal emotional awareness. Choose the skill you want to build, then try to employ it in every interaction you have.

You’ll forget throughout the day, and that’s okay. Keep reminding yourself to try. If you need to, set an alert on your phone to pop up a few times each day to help you remember your focus.

#3. Mentorship, reflection, and feedback

Engaging with mentors experienced in the nuances of litigation and known for their EI can provide invaluable insights.

Constructive feedback, both from peers and clients, can highlight areas for growth.

Moreover, post-trial reflections are priceless. Seek understanding of what went well and where emotions might have played an unexpected role. These reflections often serve as practical lessons for future cases.

Reflection is one of the most important building blocks of EI. Examining your emotions is pretty difficult while you’re still actively feeling them, so you need to look back on those experiences later when you’re in a different state. That’s how you build the ability to recognize and work within those same emotions in the future.

The more you build your EI skills, the easier it is to do. If you find it difficult to get started, know that it’s worth the effort.

Besides, the harder it is to get in tune with your emotional intelligence, the more you probably need to do it.


  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson is the founder of Attorney To Author, where she helps legal professionals bring their book projects to life. She was a California attorney for nearly two decades before becoming a freelance writer, marketing/branding consultant, ghostwriter, and writing coach. Her upcoming book, Breaking Out of Writer's Block, Exercises and inspirations for getting the words out of your head and onto the page, is due out in September 2023.

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