Nobody Likes Lawyers…But Mark B. Baer Proves They Have Feelings

Baer is an attorney, mediator, collaborative law practitioner, conflict resolution consultant, and author.

Of course that’s just a saying. What I’m really getting at is how psychology fits into law. If you’re an avid reader of this website (and thus a big fan of psychology), you know psychology plays a part in pretty much everything people do. So I decided to get specific by interviewing Mark B. Baer, Esq. Let that fancy title hit you now, because it only gets more impressive from here.

Mark, who I found out is not only accomplished in law but also an accomplished author, learns about clients’ relationships and how to best interact with them to solve their problems. This involves a lot of empathy and understanding how others think, as you will read below.

Most people I interview are doctorates, professors, or researchers of psychology, but you’re an attorney, mediator, and consultant. There are certainly countless ways, but what is one specific way that psychology plays a part in your work? 

The more I understand the nature of human conflict and what makes people tick, the better able I am at helping them resolve their differences.

What was your major in school? Did you take any psychology classes yourself?

My major in college was Economics/Business, which was the closest thing UCLA had to an undergraduate business major. I took one psychology course to satisfy a general education requirement.

Do you think it is possible to work in law without having some degree of interest in psychology?

Yes, without a doubt. However, plenty of lawyers believe that “holding a client’s hand”, “offering them a tissue or their shoulder to cry on”, “offering words of comfort and encouragement”, and “serving as a sounding board” means they have an interest in psychology.  In fact, many people refer to situations in which clients insist on giving their lawyers a very detailed backstory of their perception of the cause of their conflict, as using their lawyers as therapists. From everything I know, that’s not psychology.  Furthermore, wanting to help clients by “winning” their cases under a win/lose paradigm isn’t psychology either. Lawyers who have a sincere interest in actual psychology and have attained a solid understanding of some psychological concepts handle their cases very differently than those who don’t.

In “Authoritarianism Comes with a Huge Price”, you say you had many reasons for changing your practice from litigation to mediation, specifying some as “issues with regard to compliance of court orders rendered after hearings and trials, as well as ‘agreements’ reached through the threat of court intervention.” What were some of the other reasons?

Frustration over pervasive and increasing incivility within the legal profession, which serves no purpose in helping clients solve their problems – quite the contrary. Understanding that “winning” isn’t problem-solving. A realization that whether a legal matter is handled in a constructive or destructive manner is determined by “the lowest common denominator”, irrespective of the ultimate “winner” under a win/lose paradigm. An increasing understanding and appreciation of the serious psychological harm typically caused by litigation. An increasing understanding of human bias and its impact in the outcome of a litigated case. My concern for the innocent victims of a contentious divorce or separation – the children. The way in which I define “success”, which has nothing to do with “winning” or “competing with the Joneses”; rather, it has to do with gratitude for that which I have and surrounding myself with people love and accept me for who I am, warts and all. An increased self-awareness, gleaned through life experience and therapy. In a word, “perspective.”  Realizing that truth in the idiom “Everything’s a matter of perspective.”

Do you find that mediation is more personally rewarding?

Without a doubt! Working as a mediator closely aligns with my core values and how I define them.  Two of the values that speak to me the most and without which I would not be who I am are “fairness” and “making a difference.”  In addition, I define mediators as “peacemakers”, not “deal brokers”, and lawyers as “warriors” and “gladiators.”  As I began realizing that “legal justice” is not the same as “fundamental fairness”, I lost my passion “making a difference” through it.

As someone who is very interested in and concerned about social justice and acceptance (or as I used to call it, ‘tolerance’), your article, “Is Teaching Tolerance the Solution or the Problem?”, honestly served as a revelation for me. Why do you think people confuse the terms tolerance and acceptance?

First of all, it’s incredibly rewarding for me to learn that one of my articles served as a “revelation” for you. Thank you for sharing that with me. Secondly, confusing of meaning of terms is by no means limited to “tolerance” and “acceptance.” A great deal of conflict stems from misunderstandings, much of which has to do with the reality that we each interpret things differently, including terms. I’ve long said that I’m more about substance over form. I am referring to the value I place on conceptual knowledge and understanding, as opposed to terms, the meaning of which is subjective. However, I also recognize that the meaning assigned to words influences human behavior. I wouldn’t take issue with people confusing the terms “tolerance” and “acceptance”, if they understood the underlying concept. The problem, in my opinion, is that they don’t have such understanding. Furthermore, we live in a very judgmental society. Tolerance involves judging, whereas acceptance doesn’t. Along those lines, if a person subjectively defines “tolerance” in the same way that I define “acceptance”, we’re aligned conceptually. In fact, the following is a quote from my article titled Empathy and Decision Making: “Ultimately, we both agreed that the terminology was not important, considering that we both had a very good understanding of the underlying concepts themselves.”

Moreover, people confuse the concept of “acceptance” with “approval.” In fact, the first comment someone posted in response to that article was “Tolerance is not enough. YOU MUST APPROVE!!!! And if we suspect your approval is not sincere enough or enthusiastic enough, we will notice and punish you.” There is a difference between “acceptance” and “approval.” One has to do with accepting a person for who they are and the other involves whether or not you personally approve of their behavior. This comes down to separating a person from their behavior. Another problem centers around the fact that many people confuse what’s part of a person’s self with behaviors, which are changeable. And yet another issue stems from people who believe that the truth, as they understand it, is universal, and that their perception of reality is reality.

In the same article you describe “empathy conversations” as an effective tool for combating prejudice. Could you summarize what this would sound like or how it works?

Certainly. First of all, “empathy conversations” can lead to a deep emotional connection among those involved. They involve a number of skills and therefore typically require training. As with anything, the skill-set among people will vary and there is always room for improvement, regardless of the level of your skills. Secondly, the ability to develop a deep emotional connection requires that those involved be authentic and vulnerable with each other, which requires a sense of trust and safety that you’re in a judgment free environment. As such, it involves building rapport and trust through both verbal and non-verbal communication. A willingness to share an actual emotionally significant story from your personal background and life experiences which shaped your perspective on a particular issue causes the other person to feel safe in reciprocating. At that point, you may inquire about their perspective, while demonstrating in a non-judgmental manner that you sincerely identify with and care about their feelings and life experiences. Under such circumstances, people are much more comfortable being open and honest with you.

You should engage in active listening (empathic listening) while they’re speaking. In so doing, you tune into and respect their feelings and develop a clear understanding of their perspective and their background and life experiences that shaped that perspective. The focus is on the participants’ actual background and life experiences that shaped their opinions, not the opinions or beliefs themselves. To the extent that they don’t have any personal life experience which shaped their opinion or belief on a particular issue, inquire about otherwise relevant and emotionally substantial real lived experiences they have had. A sincere non-judgmental curiosity about such things is central to perspective taking. “Empathy conversations” can move people from theory and judgment to reality. As social science researcher Brene’ Brown says, “empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment.” In other words, it’s impossible to be empathic toward someone you’re judging. Therefore, it’s essential that we move people away from theory and judgment.

I interviewed another writer for PsychologyToday.com, Nate Kornell, about empathy and asked him why people don’t try harder to empathize with others. Part of his response was that it’s simply much easier to judge people instead. What are your thoughts? 

Empathy is a complex concept and it’s an aspect of emotional intelligence, which involves skills that can be developed and improved upon. In addition, we don’t choose our personality type and some personality types are naturally more empathetic than others. Regardless, many people perceive empathy as a feminine trait and a sign of weakness, even though it’s neither of those things. Furthermore, in our society, we tend to focus on hard skills, which involve a person’s technical skill set and ability to perform specific tasks and we tend to disregard the importance of people skills, aka soft skills. It is also important to understand that parents teach their children social skills and that children learn from modeling behavior, not from advice that’s inconsistent with the way in which parents actually behave. If a child is raised by at least one parent who engaged in what Dr. Regina Pally refers to as “reflective parenting”, the child will grow up realizing that their perspective is not “the perspective” and that their truth is not “the truth.”

It takes courage and bravery to admit that you don’t have all the answers and that you could (heaven forbid) be wrong. As Pally says, “when we’re not reflective, we tend to be reactive.” While experiencing fear or anxiety, we’re in a reactive state. It’s also important to recognize that many people experience anxiety as a result of ambiguity, uncertainty and not knowing something.  Meanwhile, as Dr. Daniel Siegel explains, when we are in a reactive state, “…we distort what we hear to fit what we fear.’ This causes us to hear (which is a physical act) without listening (which is a neocortical, cognitive event).” I can go on and on about the reasons why people don’t try harder to empathize with others, but at the end of the day, I’d have to agree with Nate Kornell that it’s simply much easier to judge people instead.

Finally, besides working at your practice, you’re a writer for Psychology Today, you make television and radio appearances, and you’ve authored or co-authored several books. It’s no surprise you’ve achieved Southern California Super Lawyer status, but how do you find the time?

First, I’d like to thank you for acknowledging some of my achievements. I think the answer lies in those two core values that I previously mentioned speak to me the most and without which I would not be who I am, which are “fairness” and “making a difference.” Once you discover your passion, it’s important to make time for it. My willingness to make that time also comes from what “success” means to me, and the fact that I happen to have a wonderful and extremely supportive spouse. I’ve learned a great deal over the years and continue learning each and every day, have found my voice and outlets for my voice, and make the time to do my part to make the world a better place.

Baer proves that he does not need a degree in psychology to have any credibility about the topic of empathy. He works professionally with people to understand their relationships and how to best solve their problems with the same skill as any psychiatrist might. But I didn’t write this just to show how one can have deep psychological knowledge without directly working in psychology, I wrote it because Baer’s thoughts on empathy and the technique of empathy conversations are genuinely intriguing and important. I think that truly listening to someone you may disagree with is a very easy method to accept and understand their thinking, a method we can all practice every day.

Mark B. Baer, Esq. is an attorney, mediator, collaborative law practitioner, conflict resolution consultant, writer for psychologytoday.com, and author based in the City of Pasadena, County of Los Angeles, California. He has been recognized as a Southern California Super Lawyer since 2012, and was elected a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation in recognition of exemplary dedication to highest principles of the legal profession, commitment to the welfare of society, and support for the ideals, objectives, and work of the American Bar Foundation in 2017.

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  1. I loved reading this!! It was so interesting, and the title made me laugh. I think we definitely do tend to think of lawyers and the law in general as uncaring and unempathetic, people just want to ‘win.’ But Baer made a very good point that there is a difference between winning and actually making a difference. The law works much better and people are much happier when empathy is utilized. We are all people and we have to treat each other with the kind of respect and understanding that we would want. I also really liked how he explained the differences between tolerance and acceptance, and acceptance and approval. It is a very important decision to make. I really liked this article and how much it touched on the importance of emotional intelligence and taking the time to understand and care about others. The interview questions were also great, and the article was beautifully put together. The topics discussed did tend to jump around a bit, but they all tied together in the end. I also really like the touch of humor in the beginning, and the conclusion paragraph that brought everything together.

  2. An immediate red flag for me was your headline. Any lawyer or person that has a close friend or loved one that is a lawyer will automatically choose not to read your article while it’s making a broad and stereotypical statement, despite the fact that you note that it’s “just a saying” in your first paragraph. It was in poor taste and, via the backtracking you did within the very first sentence of the article, it seems to be that you debated whether or not to throw it in. That aside, however, the article is devoid of more professional and serious speech and is far more colloquial and personal, which reads more as written for fun rather than written seriously, but that is merely my interpretation. There are a few grammatical errors here and there, and the format you chose for Mr. Baer’s responses is questionable. I would advise proofreading in the future and perhaps maintaining a more detached and unbiased stance, and keeping things to the point in the future.

  3. This article was good in explaining the difference between a lawyer who cares about their clients and the stereotypical lawyer. It’s also interesting that there are lawyers who view a detailed account of a conflict as their client trying to use them as a therapist, because it seems like the extra information gained though the details would help the lawyer do their job better.

  4. I think this interview was really well done being a lawyer is no easy job and I tend to see them like doctors. They see so much in their field that it can be easy to let empathy take over your personal emotions and affect your own personal health so you have to keep a sort of clear headed distance to do your job effectively, which causes such stereotypes. I would however rework your title and the introduction paragraph. The title can be seen as offensive, especially if the reader is a lawyer and you start off your intro way too informally. It seems too much like you’re talking to your friend.

  5. This article was very interesting. Mr. Baer’s perspective was refreshing and it shows that good lawyers are out there. However, as a psychology student, I strongly believe that credibility comes from having a degree. Luckily this man is well-educated, intelligent and sensitive to psychology-related issues. He doesn’t use “basic psychology” findings and ideas to “coach” his clients. It’s awesome that he adds psychology to his attorney skills, but it can be a slippery slope to give advice to people about human nature without diligently studying it.
    About the form of the article itself, I think it would benefit from a clearer bridge between the introduction part and the interview. The text would go smoother this way.
    Have a nice day! 🙂

  6. I must say that the name of the article seems a little bit childish, I don’t want to be mean, I just think that it could be better, because article itself is made really well. I think that lawyers are heartless is just a stereotype, because those people need to be serius and need to look heartless on the court, and that doesn’t mean they are like that when it comes to their clients or in their personal life. Same happens to the other proffesions, like psyhologist, people think they read minds, and it is not even racional, and still people believe that. I like the explanation between “acceptance” and “approval. it is often think as it is the same. What trait do you think is making the good lawyer?

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article about Mr. Baer. His insights about empathy and emotional intelligence is fascinating and enlightening. I’d be interested to read his articles and other pieces of work.

    My main criticism with this article is the introduction. I can’t quite place my finger on what gave me this impression, but it came off to me as unprofessional. The rest of the article and the questions asked are so well thought out, that the introduction stands out as non-representative of the rest of the writing. Perhaps some different wording would help to give it a more professional sound.

    Overall, great article and great topic! I hope the author does more follow up interviews with Baer!

  8. I certainly did love the content that was included in this particular piece emphasizing the significance of empathy and understanding people’s unique perspectives garnered through experience to overcome differences between individuals. In particular, I believe that the point discussing the reasons behind Baer dealing with cases as more of a mediator rather than a litigator is definitely an interesting concept. I agree that mediating would probably work to the advantage of all parties involved in most cases as it validates personal experience of unfairness. However, I also believe that some cases are about that hard line between winning and losing because some individuals in certain contexts will not be willing to listen for one reason or another. I, by no means am suggesting that the same empathy may not be extended to those that are temporarily not listening. However, I am suggesting that there are contexts where the line must be drawn because the issue and its consequences are quite time sensitive and an empathetic approach would result in severely negative consequences.

    On another note, even though the content was quite fascinating I was rather confused about the overarching idea of this particular piece until I finished it. Looking at the piece again I realized that this was largely due to the fact that the title had little to do with the content emphasized and the reason for interviewing this particular lawyer was not quite apparent until the very end -although I did like the lighter and attempted humor approach that was employed, it did not make a strong enough hook. Instead, it seemed to go around the main idea. Additionally, the questions seemed to jump from one place to another with no clear route. Some answers were also hard to follow like the one for why Baer decided to transition his practice from a litigation to a mediation.
    If however, the significance of the piece was communicated clearer i.e. the significance of empathy in justice it would have made the piece much crisper. Furthermore, I believe it could have set up a better foundation for the questions to come.

    Overall, I think Baer was an interesting choice as exemplified by his achievements as well as his answers to the well-thought out questions. If the hook was a bit stronger and the path of the questions clearer it would have been a much stronger piece.

  9. I have to say, I love the title. However.. the title sets this article up to be something completely different than what it actually is. I love cute, funny titles – but I thought this article would be about the feelings of lawyers in their profession and how they feel about things like defending certain clients, just the general psychology of a lawyer, not the profession. Not to mention – I didn’t know who Mark B. Baer was until the very end, which gave me very little reason to care about what he said. Almost nothing was explained in the beginning, leaving me so confused I had to read other reviews, and finally skim to read the end before I even finished the article. The complete difference in the title, and the actual content threw me off – but I could hardly finish it when I didn’t even know what it said, or what it were talking about. Explaining who you’re talking to is basic knowledge in any interview article. Any piece of writing should have a detailed explanation first about what’s being spoken about. I’m afraid this ended up being written far too confusingly for me to properly finish it or absorb the information.

  10. This was an incredibly refreshing read. I love hearing about how those in other disciplines make use of psychology within their field.

    I’m interested in reading Baer’s article on tolerance after he expounded about the significance of making proper use of terminology. I agree that we have a tendency to distort the denotation of words such that their subtle differences are lost and they are made to seem similar conceptually.

    It’s amazing to me how we make use of language. Using Baer’s examples, someone may say that another is intolerant (of an idea of belief) if they are unaccepting. This creates a meaning that , “acceptance” is an antonym for “intolerance”.

    I greatly appreciated you incorporating this question into the interview as these words have found greater use in recent times.

    – As for suggestions, I would have liked if you had allowed for the conversation to lead into questions instead. For example you may have asked Baer to further explain how it is that lawyers who understand psychology practice law differently. Without doing this, I felt that I had to assume a conclusion based on Baer’s answers to his own practice.

    Also, Baer’s answers could have been better edited for clarification. It may have been useful to have a follow-up question from which you could have clarified his answer to your original question. Then use that to form the response. From this, have a question that touches upon an idea mentioned in his original answer that wasn’t pertinent to your original question. Again this goes into creating a naturalness to the conversation.

    There’s ALOT of useful information here. Thanks for writing!

  11. While the title is a bit misleading, I did enjoy the fact that this interview was with a lawyer rather than a psychiatrist, doctor, etcetera (which sounds crazy as I type it). This being said, the idea that a lawyer has to use a significant amount of empathy seems to be the focus of this article. Now, this might just be me, but I believe that this is an extreme case of common sense. If a job requires one to deal with people, a certain amount of empathy is required. In most cases where the only evidence is contained within alibis, testimony, and the mental well-being of individuals, empathy is the only way a lawyer can win; they need to have a full understanding a given situation as it went down, meaning whoever they represent needs to have full trust in them and vice versa.

    I enjoy listening to Baer and his perspective, along with his accomplishments. I did not, however, feel as if I learned anything from reading this article besides how empathy is perceived in society.

  12. This was an interesting article because I am a Criminal Justice/Psychology Major student with an interest in Law. It is interesting to know that lawyers with an interest in psychology handle their cases differently than lawyers without. Honestly, I have been very hesitant about going to Law School because of lawyers that I have heard about and what I have witnessed in media, lawyers can be cutthroat and in it for the business. Obviously, this is a stereotype but as someone with an interest in bettering the lives of others that don’t necessarily have to do with money or winning a case, it makes me a bit wary to pursue a “cold-hearted” career. Of course, this is all stereotyping and speculation but it can have some merit. It is very interesting to hear about mediation and how it is almost a more just path in law. I never thought that the word empathy could be used in the legal system because even though we fight for justice, the legal system does not always seem to be empathetic. The idea of empathetic conversations shows how psychology can be used and can even help better a situation.

  13. As a medical student, the importance of being empathic has always been emphasized upon.

    Bringing someone justice is not an easy task and to identify with someone who may or may not have committed a crime is even harder.

    Baer shows with his positive attitude and empathetic practice that it is not as as hard it seems to not judge people and not only that we can practice empathy in any situation if we put our mind to.

    This was a well written article and I am sure with Baer as an example it will be easier for people to practice empathy in their lives.

  14. It was very interesting to read an interview with a lawyer rather than a psychologist or a doctor. The article was refreshing to read and I found the ideas presented to be thought-provoking. The only suggestion I would give is that the title and introduction could be more representative of the overarching theme of the article. Although I enjoyed the article, it didn’t turn out to be what I initially thought it would.

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