Increasing Empathy in Lawyers through Reading

by Emily Siess Donnellan

The idea that reading makes people more empathetic is not new. A 2006 study from University of Toronto found a connection between reading fiction and increased sensitivity to others. A 2013 study confirmed that reading fiction increases the ability to detect and understand the emotions of others. This study concluded, though, that while genre fiction and non-fiction have little effect on empathy, literary and other fiction, which requires readers to guess character’s motivations, increased empathy among study participants.

There are multiple news articles, and law reviews that suggest a connection between reading and empathy. It is also suggested that lawyers should be more empathetic and that law schools should be training the next crop of lawyers in this area of emotional understanding. There are numerous benefits of emotionally attuned lawyers including client satisfaction, better professional relationships, and the ability to retain clients.

Law librarians sit at the intersection between reading and empathy. We have vast library collections and are training law students and lawyers right now. So, what can we do to foster more empathetic lawyers and law students?

woman on hammock reading book

Photo by andres chaparro on

Incorporating Fiction Reading into Courses

I’m teaching a condensed advanced legal research (ALR) course this summer. I completely understand what it’s like to feel there is not enough time in the semester to get through all of the material you. Still, I believe assigning a literary fiction book, relating to the law of course, would add depth to the ALR curriculum. I plan to add a fiction reading selection the next time I teach ALR. I’ll be incorporating the novel by having students write a reflection paper discussing issues of ethics, empathy, and how the novel shaped their understanding of what it is to be a member of the legal profession.

Purchasing and Displaying Fiction in the Collection

It is a reality for many law libraries that budgets are tight. Fiction gets pushed to the very bottom of the buy list when budgets are crunched. Fiction novels are often fairly inexpensive. Perhaps libraries can consider purchasing used copies from local bookstores, or through amazon, to slowly add a fiction element to the collection. I hope libraries across the country can find even $50/year to spend on supplementing our small fiction collections. A great place to browse ideas for novels to consider adding to your course or collection is the ABA’s list of the 25 greatest law novels.

Encouraging Reading for Fun  

Let’s face it, law school can be a lonely time. Many of our students come from out of state and this may be their first time away from home and their support systems. We do a lot to make our library feel like our students “3rd space,” but we could also expand our services by offering a librarian or student led book group to foster reading for fun.

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

Photo by Thought Catalog on

There is a link between reading and empathy and librarians are uniquely situated to foster that connection and use it to create more emotionally intelligent lawyers. Comment with other ideas about how libraries may be able to use this research to encourage students and lawyers to read more!

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