Skip to main content

Tell Me What Happened: Pragmatics of Affect in Legal Communication


Effective communication is crucial in legal practice. A number of studies have been conducted on language and law, focusing on topics such as courtroom interaction patterns of prosecutors, defendants and witnesses. In legal education, the importance of such communication between lawyers and clients has been emphasised. In particular, listening comprehension skills of legal professionals and application of conversation analysis in client interviews were studied. This paper discusses findings from professional training of law school students in their lawyer-witness interview assessments. A total of 391 videotaped assessments in English of a cohort of postgraduate law students at the University of Hong Kong were collected. 10 top-scoring and 10 bottom-scoring recordings were extracted from the data and transcribed for the analysis. The analysis uncovers the differences between high and low scorers’ discursive practices in the interviews. By using the notion of affect in sociolinguistics, interactional patterns between the student-lawyer and the witness in each group were analysed, focusing categorically on the opening sequence. The findings suggest that the student-lawyer who scored high shows empathy by displaying her/his ability to understand the interviewee’s perspective about the events, i.e., by putting himself/herself in the interviewee’s shoes. Further, such display of empathy in the opening sequence has a significant bearing on the success of the interview in terms of the final and total score awarded. Those who incorporated affective communication earlier on in the interview ended up with better assessment scores.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. At 1365, citing Bell and Richard, Anatomy of a Lawyer: Personality and Long-Term Career Satisfaction, in Bell (ed.) Full Disclosure: Do You Really Want to Be a Lawyer? 229 − 30. Also see College of Law, Latest accessed on 21 April 2022.

  2. A reference was made to ‘empathy’ as a core competency, equating it with ‘comforting’ and ‘caring’ skills: para. 4.85 and Table4.3. LETR (2013), Setting Standards: The Future of Legal Services Education and Training Regulation in England and Wales. Latest accessed on 21 April 2022.

  3. BSB (2016), rule 3.4. Latest accessed on 21 April 2022.

  4. SRA (updated 2019), e.g. C1b, c and g, C2a, b, c and d, as well as C3a. Latest accessed on 21 April 2022.

  5. SRA (2021), Competences for Lawyers Practising in Inquests in the Coroners’ Courts. Latest accessed on 21 April 2022.

  6. SRA (2021), Engaging with Online Reviews. Latest accessed on 21 April 2022.

  7. See Chaps.1, 5 and 10 of the Hong Kong Solicitors’ Guide to Professional Conduct (The Law Society of Hong Kong, 2013) and Chap.10 of the Code of Conduct of the Bar of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (The Hong Kong Bar Association, May 2021) for these requirements.

  8. HKU Human Research Committee’s reference number EA031010.


  1. Spinoza, Baruch. 1985. Ethics. In Complete works, ed. Edwin Curley., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Tomkins, Silvan. 1962. Affect, imagery, and consciousness: The positive affects. New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Ahmed, Sarah. 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Ahmed, Sarah. 2004. Affective economies. Social Text 22 (2(79)):117–139.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Wetherell, Margaret. 2015. Trends in the turn to affect: A social psychological critique. Body & Society 21: 139–166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Hiramoto, Mie, and Lionel Wee. 2019. Kawaii in the semiotic landscape. Sociolinguistics Studies 13 (1): 15–35.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Ruusuvuori, Johanna. 2007. Managing affect: Interaction of empathy and problem-solving in health care encounters. Discourse Studies 9 (5): 597–622.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Westaby, Chalen, and Emma Jones. 2017. Empathy: An essential element of legal practice or ‘never the twain shall meet’? International Journal of the Legal Profession 25 (1): 107–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Daicoff, Susan. 1997. Lawyer, know thyself: A review of empirical research on attorney attributes bearing on professionalism. American University Law Review 46: 1337–1427.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Sommerlad, Hilary, and David Wall. 1999. Legally Aided Clients and Their Solicitors: Qualitative Perspectives on Quality and Legal Aid. London: The Law Society of England & Wales.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Sherr, Avrom. 2000. The Value of Experience in Legal Competence. International Journal of Legal Profession 7 (2): 95–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Gellhorn, Gay. 1998. Law and language: A empirically-based model for the opening moments of client interviews. Clinical Law Review 4: 321–358.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Samra, Rajvinder, and Emma Jones. 2019. Fostering empathy in clinical teaching and learning environments: A unified approach. Australian Journal of Clinical Education 6 (1): 1–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Price, Edward A. 1998. Instructional systems design and the affective domain. Educational Technology 38 (6): 17–24.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Wynn, Rolf, and Michael Wynn. 2006. Empathy as an interactionally achieved phenomenon in psychotherapy: Characteristics of some conversational resources. Journal of Pragmatics 38 (9): 1385–1397.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Bachelor, Alexandra. 1988. How clients perceive empathy: A content analysis of ‘received’ empathy. Psychotherapy 25 (2): 227–240.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Peräkylä, Anssi. 2012. Epilogue: What does the study of interaction offer to emotion research? In Emotion in Interaction, eds. Anssi Peräkylä, and Marja-Leena Sorjonen, 274–289. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  18. Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth. 2009. A sequential approach to affect: the case of ‘disappointment’. In Talk in Interaction: Comparative Dimensions, ed. Markku Haakana, Minna Laakso and Jan Lindström, 94–123. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

  19. Kupetz, Maxi. 2014. Empathy displays as interactional achievements: Multimodal and sequential aspects. Journal of Pragmatics 61: 4–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1992. Repair after next turn: The last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity in conversation. American Journal of Sociology 97 (5): 1295–1345.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Danet, Brenda. 1980. Language in the legal process. Law & Society Review 14 (3): 445–564.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Tkacukova, Tatiana G., Matt Gee, and Ralph Morton. 2021. The journey to comprehensibility: Court forms as the first barrier to accessing justice. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Ala-Kortesmaa, Sanna, and Pekka, and Isotalus. 2014. Relational tensions and optimal listening in the communication relationships of American and Finnish legal professionals. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research 43 (3): 173–193.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Smith, Linda F. 2009. Always judged – Case study of an interview using conversation analysis. Clinical Law Review 16 (2): 423–450.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Sherr, Avrom. 1986. Lawyers and clients: The first meeting. Modern Law Review 49 (3): 323–357.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Grosberg, Lawerence. 2001. Medical education again provides a model for law schools: The standardised patient become standard client. Journal of Legal Education 51 (2): 212–234.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Chow, Wilson, and Michael Ng. 2015. Legal education without the law – Lay clients as teachers and assessors in communication skills. International Journal of the Legal Profession 22 (1): 103–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Bois, Du, and John. W. 2006. Basic symbols for discourse transcription. Accessed on 20 May 2021.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wilson Wai Shun Chow.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Chow, W.W., Wong, K., Hiramoto, M. et al. Tell Me What Happened: Pragmatics of Affect in Legal Communication. Int J Semiot Law 36, 561–577 (2023).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: