The Necessity of Being Compassionate in Family Law: Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes


By: Miranda Gatlin

Compassion is defined as the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering, including an authentic desire to help. Empathy is the feeling and understanding component (i.e., detecting and mirroring another’s emotions and experiencing their feelings); because compassion involves taking action, empathy is necessary to motivate acts of compassion. Research suggests that compassion is something intrinsic to the Human condition.[1]So, why do we miss many opportunities for compassion? A primary cause for lack of compassion is burnout. There are three symptoms of burnout, emotional exhaustion or being overextended; feeling that one can’t make a difference, and the inability to make a personal connection. Burnout causes a reduction of empathy. And without empathetic concern, there can be no compassion.

Many lawyers and paralegals practicing in the area of family law have come to see our clients as a cluster of problems that we must try to solve rather than a whole human being; therefore, they are unable to show compassion. Most do not realize that compassion is a game-changer.

I became aware of the intrinsic capability of feeling empathy and being compassionate in the practice of law when I was still in school at the University of Georgia School of Law. I was practicing under the third-year practice act at a criminal defense non-profit organization in Atlanta, GA when I first met a client charged with murder. I was sent to the jail to interview him. He was on lock-down at the Fulton County Jail, which meant he could only receive visits from his attorneys; he was not permitted to have direct contact with anyone. All of our visits would be through Plexiglas. He was a young black male who had grown up in an entirely different environment from myself. However, as I sat there and listened to him talk, an intense feeling of suffering came over me, and I knew I would be forever changed. We developed an instant connection, which would last for years to come. 

I spent that entire year visiting him regularly at the jail. After graduating from law school, passing the Bar exam, and spending some time working in misdemeanor court, I was promoted to the felony division at the same non-profit. I was reunited with the client and was now the lead attorney on his case. Our relationship never ceased, and my compassion for him remained. We picked up right where we had left off. Every time I went to the jail, I visited him, and I would take him books on subjects ranging from art to history. I would sit and listen to him for sometimes hours at a time. We not only discussed his case, but we discussed his love for books and desire for knowledge despite dropping out of high school in the tenth grade. I had already met his family, but I now spoke to his mother regularly as well. His mother was a recovering crack addict, but I saw no distinction in her love for her son and that of my own mother’s love for me. I saw him as a human being who had suffered greatly. I believed in his innocence wholeheartedly and set out to ensure he was acquitted.

His case didn’t go to trial for three more years, but when it did, it lasted two weeks. Finally, after two days of jury deliberations, it was time to hear the verdict. As the jury filed back into the courtroom, we rose together to face his fate. I gripped his hand under the table, and he squeezed mine back as if to say no matter what happens, I appreciate you. He was found not guilty on all charges, and we were both barely able to maintain our composure. His mother was not; she let out what can only be described as a very audible sigh of relief. He was released from the Fulton County Jail, and he called me immediately. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions I was still holding onto. I was finally able to breathe.

We stayed in touch over the next several months, and we planned to meet for lunch one afternoon so that I could give him a book I had been holding onto for the day he was released, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, by John Grisham. The night before we were to meet, I called his phone to make sure our plans were still on. I didn’t recognize the voice that answered; it was his cousin. I asked to speak with him, and the voice asked me if I could go sit down. I was confused, but I took a seat on my couch next to my dog. The following words I heard I will never forget, “he’s dead, he’s been murdered.” It seemed like I had only just begun to breathe, and then I felt the breath being sucked out of me. I was devastated. I attended the funeral, and his family insisted that I sit with them, as I had become a part of their family. After the funeral, his mother pulled me aside and said, “You meant so much to him and to all of us. We never thought a young, white, woman lawyer would be able to put herself in his shoes. You really cared about him and about what happened to him, and when you were up there in that courtroom, I think everyone knew it.” It was not until that moment that I understood that by putting myself in someone else’s shoes and showing them compassion, I had been able to change the course of someone’s life and become the type of lawyer I went to law school to become.

I tell this story not to illustrate how we as lawyers or paralegals should get so intimately involved with a client; in fact, I learned over the years I practiced as a criminal defense attorney that it is not advisable to get so close to a client. However, with this particular client, who had all the factors stacked against him, I was able to do my job and convince a jury to keep one innocent man out of prison. I don’t attribute this to my exceptional skills as a trial lawyer; I attribute it to the empathy I felt and the compassion I showed him. I tell this story to illustrate that compassion is truly a game-changer.  

The main reason I believe most lawyers and paralegals don’t show compassion is because they are concerned it’s going to take time they just don’t have. But seriously? No time for compassion? Compassion promotes adherence. The most outstanding lawyers and paralegals can do everything they “know” to do to get a client to take the correct course of action they need to in order to get the best possible result in their case, but what good is the expertise of a member of the legal profession if the client refuses to listen to them. A lack of compassion by the lawyer or paralegal can also predispose the giving of a poorer quality of representation. So, a lack of compassion isn’t just a missed opportunity to improve the client’s outcome. Still, the lawyer or paralegal is also more likely to provide poor representation and to remove the chance for an acceptable outcome through omission. Additionally, without compassion, clients will not feel empowered to cope with, understand, and manage their current situation.

I understand that time is money for most family law firms. However, it is client satisfaction that can make or break a family law firm. It seems to reason that a client who is shown compassion is going to be more satisfied with the representation provided by that law firm; therefore, a satisfied client is going to create more revenue for the firm. 

Compassion can make the unbearable, bearable. Some lawyers and paralegals just understand this intuitively, and we are more likely to go above and beyond for our clients. The only rational conclusion that can be drawn is that family law firms with lawyers and paralegals who genuinely understand this and practice compassionately are destined to succeed.

I have since moved back to South Carolina and decided I needed a break from practicing law, so I became a Paralegal. I am now a Family Law Paralegal with The Miller Law Firm, P.A., where I believe we certainly practice compassionately. I know I always try to put my feet in our client’s shoes before I do anything else. Miranda Gatlin is a paralegal for The Miller Law Firm, P.A., and previously served as the Death Penalty Habeas Attorney for the state of Georgia.