If asked to describe the attributes of a good investigator, “empathetic” is not the first word that would come to mind for most people.

For anyone looking for hidden assets, though, empathy is a must.

Empathy means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” and it’s a critical tool for any professional who deals a lot with people. I realized recently that I’ve been recommending empathy for years without using the word. But I’m part of a wonderful chapter of the National Association of Divorce Professionals, and during a recent meeting one of the therapists in my Manhattan-based group pointed out the now-obvious about empathy. Our group has been together a long time, and the meetings feel like get-togethers will old friends. Out of relaxed discussions come some wonderful insights.

We’ve written many times here about the techniques we use to narrow the scope of an asset search. There are not magic databases that spit out the answer, and since you can’t look everywhere and under all keywords imaginable, you have to make some guesses to render the search manageable.

What might someone name his secret company? Which trusted friends might he use to put assets temporarily in their name? We always ask these questions of our clients because we want to think as much like our subject as we can. That’s empathy. We wrote about this in The Divorce Asset Questionnaire.

Empathy is not sympathy, or “agreement in feeling as between persons.” I don’t agree that someone refusing to pay child support is acting properly. But I empathize with him in understanding his feelings, and by putting myself in his shoes I might be able to guess what he would be doing to hide his money.

When do you want sympathy? If we can sympathize with our clients, that’s certainly helpful for client management, although a lawyer trying to keep a confessed murderer from being executed can’t be faulted for failing to sympathize very much with his client. That lawyer may have more sympathy for his client’s victims. But empathy is always called for when you want to represent your client as zealously as possible or to understand the motivations of your opposition.