Bringing Authenticity to the Practice of Law

5 Min Read By: Mian R. Wang

Much has been written about authenticity in the fields of business and leadership, but by comparison, not so much in the legal field. Yet, for all the reasons authenticity is discussed in those fields, it is equally central to the practice of law. It fosters relationships, encourages collaboration, builds trust, and differentiates you from others.

Research shows that when we cater to others and hide who we are, it is cognitively and emotionally draining, which can undermine performance. And when we don’t know the preferences and expectations of our audience, we are more anxious, which also can hurt performance.[1] When I started to think about how to bring authenticity to my practice, I thought of preparation for trial and, in particular, Federal Rule of Evidence 901—Authenticating or Identifying Evidence. The essence of the rule is in the first part: to authenticate an item of evidence, the proponent must produce evidence sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is. What does that mean when it is applied to a person? At a basic level, I think of it as demonstrating that you are who you are. That’s not to say that “authenticity” should be an excuse to do only what is comfortable or to be completely unfiltered in any professional setting. Just as I would think through carefully what documents or testimony I would use or elicit to meet the standard under Rule 901, I also have to think through what personal qualities I have that would make me a better lawyer. Here, I identify four ways to bring authenticity to the practice of law.

Start with Being Self-Aware

Having a better understanding of yourself helps to create more relevant and motivating goals. If this were a trial, I would begin with a list of issues that need to be proven in order to prevail. Start making that list. What are the top five priorities for you professionally and personally? What are your personality traits? Keep in mind that we all have multiple versions of ourselves that show up depending on the context. Just as knowing your case inside and out is an important step toward success for a client, knowing yourself is equally important. If you are concerned that you have blinders on, then solicit feedback from colleagues and family members as you would from mock jurors. Others’ perception of you is an equally important part of the picture.

Effective Vulnerability Can Build Trust

By being vulnerable at the right time in the right situation, you can build trust and strengthen connections. Once, during jury selection for a case pending in the federal court in Connecticut, I watched a trial attorney from Texas ask—in a thick “Texan” drawl—whether potential jurors would give his client a fair chance and not be biased against the trial team’s “Texas-ness.” His delivery of his difference and vulnerability was very effective in turning around a potential distraction.

Humans are hard-wired to read each other’s expressions. Research shows that observing someone who is injured will trigger the brain’s “pain matrix.”[2] Similarly, observing someone who is suppressing their feelings triggers physiological reaction in the observer.[3] Research also shows that we are particularly sensitive to signs of trustworthiness.[4] Finding the right context and the right method of delivery is not easy, but accepting the idea that vulnerability leads to trust and being curious about what context and method of delivery may be effective is a good first step.

Identify Values for Your Team

Throughout a trial, key pieces of evidence need to be made clear to the jury. Those key pieces of evidence are based on a thorough understanding of the facts and the law. The same applies to identifying and communicating core values to a team. Having a diverse team means thoughtfully addressing the challenges of working with people of different backgrounds. In fact, a study using fMRI to observe adults randomly assigned to two groups, one “leopards” and the other “tigers,” showed that even randomly assigned groups displayed in-group biases.[5] If we are hardwired to pick up on differences, then shared values can act as a unifying thread that anchors a team toward a common goal.

Practice Active Listening

During trial, it is important to listen carefully to testimony. On cross-examination, the testimony may not be the same as the testimony obtained in a deposition, so unexpected answers may be potential areas for impeachment or further exploration. And on direct examination, the testimony may not be the same as you had prepared the witness to deliver, so unexpected answers may need to be remedied. Outside of trial, active listening is equally important but often difficult to do. Most people fall into four listening styles: (1) the analytical listener who aims to analyze a problem from a neutral starting point; (2) the relational listener who aims to build connection and understand the emotions underlying a message; (3) the critical listener who aims to judge the content of the conversation and reliability of the speaker; and (4) the task-focused listener who shapes a conversation towards efficient transfer of important information.[6] Each style is effective, and developing the ability to shift between different styles can help improve listening and achieve conversational goals.

Properly authenticating documents during trial is a learned process that pays off in better results the more you practice. The same can be said for practicing authenticity in work and in life.

  1. Gino, Francesca, Research: It Pays to Be Yourself, Harvard Business Review, Feb. 13, 2020.

  2. Lamm C, Nusbaum HC, Meltzoff AN, Decety J (2007) What Are You Feeling? Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to Assess the Modulation of Sensory and Affective Responses during Empathy for Pain. PLOS ONE 2(12): e1292.

  3. Id.

  4. Dirks, KT, and Ferrin, DL (2002) Trust in leadership: Meta-analytic findings and implications for research and practice. Journal of Applied Psychology 87(4): 611–628.

  5. Van Bavel, JJ, Packer, DJ, Cunningham, WA (2008) The Neural Substrates of In-Group Bias. Phycological Science 19(11): 1131–1139.

  6. Minehart, Rebecca D., Symon, Benjamin B. & Rock, Laura K., What’s Your Listening Style?, Harvard Business Review, May 31, 2022.

By: Mian R. Wang

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