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The profession should ‘embrace emotion as a new way of working and thinking’

Following the pandemic, the need for emotional literacy and emotional skills has increased with the uptake of more digital working practices — something this academic said was cause for optimism.

user iconLauren Croft 03 April 2023 Careers
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Dr Senthorun Raj is a reader in human rights law at the Manchester Law School in the United Kingdom and recently published a paper in the Feminist Legal Studies Academic Journal: “Legally Effective: Mapping the Emotional Grammar of LGBT Rights in Law School”.

Speaking recently on The Protégé Podcast, Mr Raj discussed the importance of understanding the emotion behind the law and legal decisions, as well as how the need to better incorporate emotional grammar has been heightened since the onset of COVID-19.

Emotion has always been present in law — as most enter law for an emotional reason, according to Mr Raj, who said that feminist scholars in particular and feminist lawyers have been doing extensive work in this space for a long time.


“My conception of emotional grammar is very much indebted to a lot of the work that those scholars and lawyers and activists were doing, because fundamentally, they were trying to point out that the forms of labour that we value in society aren’t just monetary or aren’t just sort of cognitive or intellectual, but emotional labour is actually important. 

“And in fact, there are certain professions where we immediately understand the value of it. For example, you think about service workers, you give people tips depending on how well they serve you and the emotional interaction that you have with them and that rapport and intimacy they build with you,” he said. 

“We already know in certain contexts where those soft skills are valuable. Think about child minding or babysitting and childcare; again, those areas we kind of immediately recognise the value of emotional skills. And in law, there have been a lot of people who have been writing and emphasising how important those skills are.”

This is particularly relevant for those in family law, who work with vulnerable people and need to think about the wellbeing of the parties involved. 

“A lot of lawyers and judges and others pointed out the importance of developing legal frameworks or quasi-legal frameworks, like alternative dispute resolution, that were about navigating emotions and taking emotions seriously and hearing from the parties individually their perspectives and then trying to mediate in that space,” Mr Raj explained.  

“And so, I’m really kind of building on a lot of that work to kind of point out that all other areas of law also benefit from this. And certainly, in the context of the pandemic where many people are working from home, there is this increasing bleed between the private home space and the public workspace.”

And while there were already a number of people who were working from home pre-pandemic, including freelancers and a lot of working mothers balancing professional lives with childcare and domestic labour, the pandemic meant more emotion coming into play in emails and digital exchanges, according to Mr Raj. 

“I don’t want to overstate the role of the pandemic because I think doing so often undercuts the fact that this was already happening, particularly for certain marginalised groups and women in particular, in that context,” he noted.  

“But I think we’re in a moment now where there is greater attention to when you’re not physically in a room together, you have to be much more cognisant of the way you communicate emails and the kinds of exchanges you have because it’s easy to depersonalise each other when you’re not in constant interaction. So, I think absolutely, we are having a moment right now where there is greater attention to emotion, and I hope that develops a kind of importance more generally, particularly in the legal education side, for developing emotional literacy and emotional skills as well.”

In terms of bringing more emotion into legal education, Mr Raj said that connecting curriculums to the lives and experiences of the students, as well as their future clients, is of the utmost importance. 

“If you’re studying a criminal law unit, for example, why not put in examples and cases and topics that deal with sort of youth justice, that deal with drug offences, that deal with sexual offences critically, that deal with issues that most people come into contact with in their everyday lives, as well as are going to come into contact in everyday practice,” he added. 

“Rather than treating law as a kind of purely hypothetical or abstract space, actually connecting it more to the lives of individuals. And I think this is why my work and my paper [were] very much focused on LGBT rights as a good example of that, because the inculcation of LGBT rights curriculums in law was very much about both the passions and interests of students and teachers.

“It was about pointing out that entire courses, whether it’s in family law or criminal law or contract law, would make certain kinds of assumptions about what couples look like, what families look like, and would ignore sexual and gender diversity. The addition of these issues into the curriculum [was] about the emotional interests of individuals for the pedagogic reason of allowing students not just to be interested in these issues, but to learn about contract law or criminal law through the issue itself.” 

And when asked how optimistic he is that legal education providers around the world will be able to better incorporate emotional grammar and literacy into their curriculums, Mr Raj said the profession was headed in the right direction. 

“I would say that I’m generally an optimistic person, but I want to temper that quite cautiously. I don’t think there is a wide-ranging appetite for this sudden wholesale reform of legal education and legal services to sort of embrace emotion as a new way of working and thinking. 

“But at the same time, I’m really hopeful of the little moments where I see firms take up certain practices because their junior staff have been demanding greater flexibility or mental health days, recognising the importance of mental health first aid courses, for example,” he added. 

“I’m also really optimistic by the creation of new units, critical units across curriculums, not only in Australia or the UK, but around the world, that deal with, for example, critical race theory, that deal with issues of feminist legal interest, that really bring these topics to the forefront. We have gender sexuality in law units, we have jurisprudence units, critical legal studies units now, and I think those units have such ripe opportunity to bring these conversations in, and I’m quite encouraged by that.”