Law in Contemporary Society

Law Schools and the Empathy Crisis

Introduction: Why Do Lawyers Need Empathy?

“Lawyers think of cases as legal problems, not as people with problems.” (1) Accordingly, a study found that first-year law students were generally more “problem-oriented” (focusing on analyzing particular facts and issues as objective elements) than “person-oriented” (considering the client’s experience and the social effects of legal action).(2) Although this characterization of lawyers and law students may seem obvious, and some may even argue that an emotionless approach to the law maximizes analytical abilities; empathy is critical to lawyering. Specifically, empathy enhances a lawyer’s ability to gain their clients trust, effectively communicate with and advocate for their clients, and negotiate with adversaries.(3) However, there is currently an empathy crisis in law schools: The COVID-19 pandemic has already impeded students’ capacity to emphasize, and law schools fail to adequately foster empathy within their student bodies.

The Empathy Crisis

The COVID-19 Pandemic Compromised Students’ Ability to Empathize

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted students’ empathetic development largely due to two factors: isolation and an increase in digital communications. First, a study of college students from Spring 2019 to Spring 2021 reported a reduction in cognitive empathy, the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, due to social isolation and the related decline in mental health. (4) Specifically, prolonged periods of isolation, enforced by lockdowns and social distancing requirements, may have heightened distress and self-focus, detracting from students’ capacity to emphasize with others.(5)

Furthermore, the shift towards remote learning and virtual interactions further compromised students’ empathetic capacities. The ability to empathize substantially depends upon one’s ability to accurately recognize and decode situational and expressive cues.(6) However, the limitations of digital communications—namely the difficulties in discerning body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice—make it nearly impossible to recognize nuanced social cues and thus undermine empathetic development.(7) In addition, studies find that extended periods of online activity can decrease attention spans and prompt mind-wandering, hindering students’ ability to listen, understand, and ultimately empathize.(8)

Law Schools Fail to Cultivate Empathy

Although law schools should prioritize nurturing students’ empathetic capacities, especially given the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, they often fail to support—and may even hinder—students’ empathetic development. While there is limited research on law students’ empathy levels, one study found that law students had significantly less empathy than nursing and pharmacy students, but these low levels remained consistent from their first to third year.(9) This study suggests that, at best, law schools fail to foster empathy.

However, drawing on findings from medical students’ reduced empathy, it is plausible that law students experience a similar decline during their legal education. In particular, a literature review regarding medical trainees and empathy found that studies identified distress as a main reason for empathy decline.(10) Elements of medical training contributing to this distress include clinical realities shifting focus from humanistic elements to technology and objectivity, reduced contact with families, lack of support from peers, high workload, and lack of sleep and relaxation time.(11) Many of these elements directly translate to law school: Tragic cases of human loss and suffering are reduced to mere rules cited on an exam; Thanksgiving becomes a critical period to outline, rather than an opportunity to see family; students often view each other in terms of the curve; the workload is overwhelming, and if it is not, students take on more; and the extensive range of energy drinks in law schools' vending machines reflects students’ sleeping habits. Thus, it is certainly imaginable that, like medical training’s effect on future doctors, law schools generate distress that could reduce empathy in aspiring lawyers, whose empathetic capacities were already diminished by the pandemic.

Why Current Programs are Insufficient

Some may argue that law school fosters empathy through externships, clinics, and pro-bono work. While these programs are certainly valuable and offer meaningful experiences, they are likely ineffective in increasing empathetic capacities. Specifically, their limited duration and irregular frequency do not provide the structural framework and consistent engagement necessary to develop lasting empathetic skills. Furthermore, internships and externships are selective and prestigious and therefore not universally accessible. Ironically, the exclusivity of these programs may cause distress (and therefore hinder empathetic development), as students compete for limited spots and spend hours crafting their applications.

Conclusion: Solutions

Due to the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is especially urgent that law schools implement changes in their curriculum aimed at increasing empathy among their student bodies. First, every course should provide a wholistic perspective of the law by emphasizing the historical, anthropological, psychological, and sociological factors that influence a case. Hopefully, this approach will humanize the legal education and encourage students to consider the personal narratives, emotional dimensions, and social dynamics of every legal claim. Second, professors should place a greater emphasis on the practical outcomes of law instead of normative justifications for legal decisions. This emphasis may foster empathy by underscoring the human impact of legal decisions rather than focusing on abstract legal principles or behavior that law theoretically incentivizes. Last, all courses should include at least one group evaluation, which could develop students’ empathetic capacities by decreasing social isolation and facilitating support among peers. All in all, law schools must address the empathy crisis to shape students into not only skilled lawyers but also decent human beings.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


1 : John Barkai and Virginia O. Fine, “Empathy Training for Lawyers and Law Students,” SSRN, July 17, 2009,

2 : Kenneth Barry and Patricia Connelly, “Research on Law Students: An Annotated Bibliography,” American Bar Foundation Research Journal 3, no. 4 (1978),

3 : Peter Sear, “Empathy for Legal Professionals,” Psychology Today, accessed April 28, 2024,

4 : Janelle S. Peifer and Gita Taasoobshirazi, “College Students’ Reduced Cognitive Empathy and Increased Anxiety and Depression before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 18 (September 9, 2022): 11330,

5 , 8 , 11 : Ibid.

6 : William Ickes, Emphatic Accuracy (New York: Guilford, 1997).

7 : Dorothy L. Espelage and Sharon Y. Tettegah, eds., Emotions, Technology, and Behaviors (London: Academic Press, 2016).

9 : Sarah E. Wilson, Julie Prescott, and Gordon Becket, “Empathy Levels in First- and Third-Year Students in Health and Non-Health Disciplines,” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 76, no. 2 (March 2012): 24,

10 : Melanie Neumann et al., “Empathy Decline and Its Reasons: A Systematic Review of Studies with Medical Students and Residents,” Academic Medicine 86, no. 8 (August 2011): 996–1009,


Webs Webs

r3 - 29 Apr 2024 - 02:24:09 - BrennaDugel
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM