Mindfulness and mental chatter

Listen Like a Lawyer is headed into that time of year when it’s going to be difficult to maintain weekly posts. Being too busy has a detrimental effect not only on one’s blogging goals; it can also interfere with communication. And since lawyers fall into from the “busy” trap at least as much as the average person and probably a lot more, this is a good moment to think about what that does to us and how to respond.

Seeking some wisdom on this topic, I started to check out Scott Eblin’s new book Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. This book seems kind of like the “7 Habits” equivalent for the mindfulness movement.

After digging into the book, I was going to start by exploring the concept of “mental chatter.” Mental chatter is also known as “monkey mind” or (less memorably) “discursive thoughts.” Basically it means random disorganized thoughts running through your head. Should we listen to them? Or ignore them? (Is that even possible?) These random thoughts are obstacles to mindfulness—defined as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally” (Eblin quoting mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn). Also from Eblin:

Mindfulness is about “putting yourself in a position to be more aware and intentional about what’s really going on inside and what, if anything, you want to do about it.”

And then I had two back-to-back days that were busier than any in recent memory. They reminded me of the days back in law practice when I had three filings due in three different courts at 5 p.m. on the same day. There was no time to be mindful! Or so it seemed. The day was actually too busy for random mental chatter because there was too much to do requiring full focus. I tip my cap to the legions of practicing lawyers who handle these types of days year in and year out.

What is the solution? It’s not “finding balance.” On this, I like what Eblin has to say:

[I]f you’re an executive, manager, or professional with a demanding job, you’re about as likely to find balance as you are to be a purple unicorn. The reason is that the world and life are both fast moving and ever changing. In that environment, balance, at best, is a temporary and fleeting state. Instead of seeking balance, try to find a rhythm instead. By focusing on rhythm, you acknowledge there are times when your pace is going to be much more oriented to work, home, or community and there are times when the counterpoints of other aspects of your life come to the fore.

It’s also not about using mindfulness as a Band-Aid. Techniques such as deep breathing can help with reducing stress in specific situations, but mindfulness really means something broader. For example, having consistent routines—like sleeping and exercising—provides resilience on days that swing to the painfully hectic side of the pendulum.

And if mindfulness is about awareness, then we need to think about it when we think about listening. Eblin has some interesting thoughts on different styles of listening, and Listen Like a Lawyer will delve into those on another day.


Here are some additional resources on mindfulness:

The Berkeley Institute for Mindfulness in Law

Becky Beaupre Gillespie, Mindfulness in Legal Practice is Going Mainstream, ABA Journal (Feb. 1, 2013)

Susan Moon, Moonlighting: Mindfulness for Lawyers and the Jedi Master, Above the Law (August 12, 2014) (featuring Jeena Cho)

Robert Zeglovitch, The Mindful Lawyer, ABA GP Solo Magazine (October/November 2006)

Scott Rogers, The Mindful Lawyer: Practicing Law with Presence

Chris Bradley, Jeena Cho on Zen Lawyering, Lawyerist (June 24, 2013)

Jeena Cho, The Anxious Lawyer (ABA forthcoming 2015)

Shalini Jandial George, The Cure for the Distracted Mind Why Law Schools Should Teach Mindfulness, 53 Duq. L. Rev. (forthcoming, winter 2015).

A myth about listening and learning

Listening is a loser, at least according to the widely circulated Pyramid of Learning:

Slide1

I’ve been hearing about the Pyramid of Learning — also known Dale’s Cone of Learning — since I was a child. Yet it has a problem. Specifically, a lot of credible people believe it to be “zombie learning theory that refuses to die.”

Digging through the evidence to find out exactly what is true turns out to be difficult, partly because there are just so many sources that repeat these numbers. One of the best I have seen is by Candice Benjes-Small and Alyssa Archer on the Association of College & Research Libraries blog (these are the folks that called the learning pyramid a “zombie learning theory”). They gather sources and trace how this idea started as a conceptual model about conveying information at various levels of abstraction. There were no numbers making any retention claim. At some point, most likely during World War II, the graphic of the pyramid emerged with numbers attached to it representing retention percentages.

The graphic of the pyramid and numbers makes it feel irresistible. Matching the strength of their appeal with a strident attack, Will Thalheimer has described the pyramid as “dangerous” and a “fraud” on his blog Will at Work Learning. A fairly comprehensive timeline of debunking sources can be found at the Institute for Learning Professionals. The American Society of Engineers published a conference paper with a detailed, balanced refutation including graphical representations of where these numbers appear to come from.

In her textbook Designing Information Literacy Instruction: The Teaching Tripod Approach (2014), Joan Kaplowitz commits the debunking to print:

As appealing as that notion [of the learning pyramid] might be, an exploration of the literature shows there is no solid, research-based data to support it. 1

Kaplowitz goes on to suggest the numbers themselves contain the seeds of their own destruction:

Even the numbers themselves should make us raise an eyebrow and question the so-called data. The percentages are just too perfectly distributed with each number being a multiple of 10 and the spacing of categories somewhat even to have arisen from any real-world experimentation.

That’s a lot of debunking, but is it enough? The appeal of the learning pyramid creates a pedagogical Scylla and Charybdis: If you tout these numbers, many teaching faculty will discount your credibility. But if you doubt the numbers, you may lose your connection with other faculty who embrace them. Benjes-Small and Archer advise “treading carefully.”

What does this mean for lawyers and law professors?

We are experts in being precise with words as well as being skeptical about claims. So we can avoid broad assertions of the pyramid’s scientific truth.

We can be careful in how we present information, testing it on audiences when possible and relying on our own experience as a guide. For example, showing a text-heavy Power Point while simultaneously reading the words is terrible. it doesn’t reinforce the information; it creates competing streams of information and, in a broad sense, is just plain annoying.

We can rely on more recent and more specific research into information retention. Not surprisingly, studies support the use of images: “Humans can remember pictures with 90% accuracy in recognition test over several days, even when the images are presented for only a short time during learning.” This is from Doug Linder and Nancy Levit’s The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law, citing a study that is about 1000 percent more scientific than the cone of learning (as well as 1000 percent more difficult to read and understand). The science confirms the art of lawyering, as recounted by Linder and Levit:

Images are so effective to effective communication that David Ball contends a “trial attorney without images is like an art book without pictures.”

The fundamental truth behind Dale’s original concept is that information can be presented in many forms ranging from the concrete to the abstract. Whether teaching a class, making a presentation to clients, or arguing to a jury, we can “mix it up.” That’s not scientific, and there are fancier ways to say it, like Benjes-Small and Archer’s recommendation: “Think multimodal.” However it is phrased, this broad recommendation is more reliable than a neat set of mythical percentages.


  1. Kaplowitz cites Char Booth, Effective Teaching, Effective Learning (2011); James P. Lalley and Robert H. Miller, “The Learning Pyramid: Does It Point Teachers in the Right Direction?” published in volume 128 of Education (pages 64-79) in 2007; and Michael Molenda, “On the Origin of the Retention Chart” in volume 44 of Educational Technology in 2004.

Steal their listening

Keith Lee’s book The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice (ABA 2013) is a bracing, honest, challenging compendium of advice for new lawyers. I would strongly recommend it to upper-level law students and new lawyers. (See also his blog, Associate’s Mind, as well as his columns in Above the Law.) One chapter in Keith’s book that caught my eye is “On the Importance of Stealing.”

In addressing new lawyers, Keith advises the following:

“[S]tealing is an essential skill for you to develop.”

Not for larceny, of course, he says, but “within the framework of learning and growth.” The objects of this stealing are varied: “other lawyers, CLEs, books, anything really.” New lawyers should “steal their pattern of success.”

This is great advice. But it’s easier in some areas than others. We can look at a great legal brief and break down how each section and each sentence works. We can watch a great advocate and recognize skillful pauses and variations in tone. We can admire a senior lawyer who knows literally every statute and case in a given area of expertise and can assemble and reassemble them instantly in response to any factual question.

What about listening?

Listening is hard to observe and very hard to measure. Speaking and writing are productive – i.e. observable – communication skills. Listening is one of the two receptive communication skills, along with reading. “Listening is a hypothetical construct, something you know exists but you can’t physically see. You can see only the behavioral indicators supporting its existence.” This is from Debra L. Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser’s textbook on listening.

So how do you steal from a hypothetical construct?

The behavioral indicators are a place to start.

This is a complex process: you’re observing affirmative actions such as making eye contact, using appropriate body language, asking questions, and providing “discourse markers” such as “um-hm” that encourage conversation. But you’re also observing what the listener doesn’t do: noticeably look away, check a smartphone, interrupt. Noticing what isn’t there is very, very difficult. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Daniel Kahneman tells us, “WYSIATI”: What you see is all there is.

The ease of perceiving what is there may partly explain why active listening is such a popular listening concept. It has a set of specific repeatable, measurable behaviors that go with it, such as repeating what the speaker has said. If you watch a skilled active listener, you can steal the method. But note how this is not really stealing the person’s listening skills. It’s stealing the productive act of speaking in a certain way, by repeating what the listener just heard.

The most important components of listening are hidden: being aware of and receiving the information, placing it into context with one’s previous knowledge, evaluating and (perhaps) remembering the information, and responding. These elements of listening are drawn again from Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model of listening.

It’s hard to steal someone’s level of awareness. Again here, specific affirmative behaviors may be the only practical proxy. Making eye contact is a sign of awareness, for example. The educational-reform model KIPP teaches children a set of specific classroom behaviors that include “sit up,” “track the speaker,” and “nod your head.”  Body language can shape not only communication behaviors but actual brain chemistry, as Amy Cuddy famously described in her TED Talk and other work on “power posing.” 

The “s” in the MATERRS listening model stands for “stay connected and motivated.” To be a good listener, you have to want to listen.

But how can a person “steal” someone’s else’s motivation? Maybe the answer is an instrumental one: you can observe what their good listening does for them. Specifically, you can observe how you feel when you interact with a skilled listener.

In The Marble and the Sculptor, Keith Lee emphasizes communication — actually over-communication — with clients. This means keeping the client informed, of course. It also means taking time to get to know the client: “Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

This is one of Keith’s many kernels of advice to consider stealing. (Actually he got it from and attributes it to Dan Hull of What About Clients.) Before going on an outing to spend the afternoon at the client’s site, it’s a good idea to prepare. Study up on the client, of course. But also, consider inviting a great lawyer to lunch — someone whose client development and communication skills you know to be first rate.

And then steal their listening.

***

Note: I was grateful to meet Keith in person as he spoke to the legal blogging class I am co-teaching at Emory Law School. His advice on lawyering and legal blogging is first-rate (obviously!) and was received with great enthusiasm by the students. After seeing him interact with students, I can say Keith is not only a great speaker but also an excellent listener.

Core professional qualities of lawyers

About a thousand law professors are gathering now at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Schools. The first session I attended this morning was Incorporating Teaching Professional Identity into the Legal Education Curriculum, with speakers from Mercer Law School and the University of North Dakota School of Law. Both schools offer innovative courses in building a professional identity as a lawyer.

The new program on professional identity at North Dakota emphasizes twelve core professional qualities, which I quote here from their handout:

  • Adaptability/Deals with Unpredictability
  • Confronts Mistakes
  • Courage
  • Diligence/Reliability
  • Empathy/Compassion
  • Generosity/Public-Mindedness
  • Honesty
  • Humility/Respectfulness/Courtesy
  • Integrity Under Pressure
  • Loyalty
  • Patience/Perseverance/Resilience
  • Professional Objectivity/Sympathetic Detachment

I really love this list and wanted to focus the rest of this post on how listening relates to these core qualities. Interestingly, the list does not include anything about “communicates effectively.” I think the point is to talk about the essential character of the lawyer, which is separate and broader than the lawyer’s discrete skills like communicating effectively. The lawyer’s core qualities are broader and more significant than any one skill; they drive the lawyer’s individual actions and deployment of skills in many ways.

Here are my quick thoughts on highlights of the list in relation to listening.

Adaptability and Dealing with Unpredictability

To be able to adapt, the lawyer has to listen. This is easier at the beginning of a project, when the lawyer is beginning to create the narrative of the case or the strategic approach. It’s harder when the client and/or lawyer already have a narrative or strategy in mind. The best lawyers can hear explicit or implicit dissonance with their chosen narrative, and then assess the risk to that narrative.

Listening also helps with unpredictability, I think in the sense of asking questions and listening to the answer. Open-ended questions may tease out that unpredictability and let a lawyer prepare for it. Closed questions that lead the conversation in a certain way may mask unpredictable facts or preferences, setting up nasty surprises later.

Courage

Lawyers have to deal with very difficult facts sometimes. The setting may be a courtroom where a witness recounts painful testimony or a law office where a client shares an uncomfortable truth or a mediation room where harsh words are exchanged or an icy test of wills becomes apparent. The lawyer has to have courage to face these situations and listen with professional body language and a problem-solving demeanor, even if that lawyer’s personal preference would be to go anywhere else in the world.

Diligence

To do a thorough job, the lawyer has to set up sufficient time for fact-investigation including, possibly, interviews. And the lawyer should use judgment to decide how to go about collecting facts, whether by e-mail or phone or face-to-face meetings.

Empathy/Compassion

Listening like a vacuum cleaner sucking up information is not, by itself, effective listening. The listener may be primarily interested in fact investigation and analysis, but listening with empathy will almost always be more professional (as a value) as well as more effective (as a skill).

Generosity

Giving time to listen is a form of generosity. Giving undivided attention during that time is more difficult and therefore more generous.

Humility/Respectfulness/Courtesy

Effective listening is all of these things. We’ve all witnessed situations with a bad listener who interrupts to ensure everyone gets the benefit of his or her “wisdom.” Interrupting is a little more complicated than that, though, because some forms of interruption show engagement with the conversation. Effective listening, like professional identity more broadly as discussed in this session, is complex and holistic and cannot be wholly addressed by a set of steps or distinct, invariable behavior rules.

Patience

At times, listening is hard. That’s partly because people speak more slowly than our brains want to process information. (A whole separate blog post or posts will cover this idea later. It’s a huge component of why really effective listening can be so hard.) Effective listeners may need to show explicit signs of patience, such as body language and encouraging responses. Effective listeners may also need to struggle with their own intrinsic impatience due to the differential between how fast they hear the information and how fast they are capable of processing information.

Perseverance

Many people have mentioned to me that the best listeners are able to hear what’s not said. That’s partly an intellectual skill. But perseverance helps–asking questions in different ways, listening with discernment to how a person says something, and defining the gap. That’s just one specific point where perseverance and listening intersect. Being able to withstand a 4-hour conference call is another form of perseverance.

Professional Objectivity and Sympathetic Detachment

Effective listening means limiting the influence of one’s preferences and biases. It means being empathetic while not becoming so wrapped up in the narrative that one’s objectivity is compromised. The lawyer’s role is a complex and difficult one, and the seeming paradox of “sympathetic detachment” is just one illustration of the fine line lawyers must walk.

Please feel free to use the comments for sharing more thoughts on listening and how it relates to the core qualities of lawyering.


Thanks again to Professors Patti Alleva and Michael McGinniss of the University of North Dakota and Professors Tim Floyd and Patrick Longan, and Dean Daisy Hurst Floyd of Mercer. I probably won’t be able to blog in this depth again during the conference but will try to at least tweet further thoughts of interest on listening. Listen Like a Lawyer’s Twitter feed can be seen here on the blog on the right-hand panel.

Resolve to do more than “active listening”

Lawyers are not stupid. They know that listening is important to their professional success. In fact, when a recent study asked about 100 U.S. and Finnish lawyers to assess their own “listening competence,” they answered realistically, ranking themselves average to good. They supported these rankings with qualitative answers so closely linked to their work as lawyers that the authors of the study concluded they were really answering a different question focused on their “professional listening competence.” The study is Professional Listening Competence: Promoting Well-Being at Work in the Legal Context by Sanna Ala-Kortesmaa and Pekka Isotalus, published in the International Journal of Listening.

The study by Ala-Kortesmaa and Isotalus is quite interesting and will be addressed in a longer post later in 2015. For now, here at the end of 2014, it offers a gem to take away as a potential New Year’s Resolution:

Active listening is the wrong answer. Or at least it’s not always the right answer.

Listening competence requires a broad range of skills from cognitive strengths such as memory to emotional (“affective”) strengths such as being able to focus on the conversation partner. And listening competence requires the listener to adjust behavior to the situation, using a variety of approaches.

People—including lawyers—generally do understand that they need to adjust their listening to the situation. The problem is the widespread belief that the way to do this is by active listening.

Active listening is focused on other conversation partners, with the goals of “adopting the emotions of others or interpreting their thoughts and meanings.” (This language is from the Ala-Kortesmaa article; the original source of this critique is by John Stewart and Milt Thomas, summarized here.)

What is often more effective is “dialogic listening.” Dialogic listening focuses on the shared aspect of the conversation. It explores what the other person is saying, not to crawl inside that person’s mind or try to paraphrase meaning but rather to create shared understanding. It’s more open-ended. It tends to be less manipulative. According to the original source on dialogic listening, Stewart and Thomas, the practice of dialogic listening means encouraging conversation partners to say more, using metaphors to reach new understandings, asking the conversation partner to paraphrase (rather than paraphrasing for them), and exploring the context behind the conversation partner’s statements.

One difficulty for attorneys that Ala-Kortesmaa and Isotalus point out is to find out if their conversation partner is communicating dialogically. This is the idea of the dual role of listening. The article implies what most attorneys will have experienced: sometimes they have to communicate with people who aren’t communicating in anything close to good faith. Or, it’s hard to communicate openly and non-manipulatively with someone who is trying to manipulatively guide the conversation toward his or her own goal. (Stewart and Thomas admit that dialogic listening itself can seem manipulative. So that goes back to the idea that however one labels communication, if it’s not good-faith communication then the labels really don’t matter.)

Throughout my time blogging here at Listen Like a Lawyer, I’ve been wanting to take a hard look at active listening. It is such a popular listening concept, yet there seems to be a subtle kind of domination in restating someone’s thoughts, either in the same words (now they are my words) or different words (let me fix that and put the right words on it). This topic needs further exploration because clearly active listening is a technique every lawyer does need, and great communicators can do active listening in good faith, without manipulation or domination.

But this insight from the Professional Listening Competence study seems like a great way to end the year. Active listening is not the formulaic answer to being a good listener. No single formula is the answer to being a good listener. Dialogic listening is worth learning more about, especially with client conversations, because it’s not about forcing meaning or extracting meaning but sharing meaning.

This New Year’s Eve post is inspired by Matt Homann’s “Looking for a Resolution?” post on the [non]billable hour

Artisanal listening

McSweeney’s post last week, “I Am An Artisanal Attorney,” caused a ripple of laughter and sharing among lawyers on social media. If you have ever eaten small-batch honey from a meadery or had your mustache trimmed at a groomery or considered purchasing an ascot from an ascottery—or if you just need a laugh—stop and read it.

Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr
Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr

Author and very special attorney John Frank Weaver promises not just to write legal documents, but to hand-craft his own paper from local flax and write the text in ancient script using a feather quill and squid ink:

Don’t be lulled into a complacent life filled with more cheap, manufactured goods than you’ll ever need and lawsuits that don’t reflect your uniqueness. Insist on a life well-lived with food, experiences, and litigation that reflect people and skills, not factories and automation.

After I finished laughing, which took a good long time, I wanted to make a semi-serious point. Weaver’s comic post taps into anxiety about new realities and related fears such as “Here Come the Robot Lawyers.”  In contrast, an artisan is “a person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.” How much of the legal market is and should be artisanal — or “bespoke” — and how much should be standardized or automated is a huge, ongoing, and critically important debate stoked by Richard Susskind and many others. (Here’s one article from the ABA’s Legal Rebels on Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers tapping into this debate.)

Even for those of us who, at heart, want to practice on the bespoke end of the spectrum, we might agree that lawyers don’t need to squeeze their ink out of local squids. They don’t need calling cards printed on Himalayan pressed paper. But it is a requirement of the profession to provide clients with legal services that are customized to the facts of the case. It is an ideal of the profession to tailor these services to the personality and needs of the client as well. And “thinking like an artisan” can be an excellent marketing practice for lawyers because clients may screen their lawyers based on objective criteria and then choose their lawyers based upon more artisanal criteria such as values and fit.

Drawing on what it means to be an artisan, one of the lawyer’s most “traditional methods” is quality face time with people. This relationship building is intertwined with the broader tradition of lawyer as trusted advisor. And one of the traditional techniques of the trusted advisor is listening. Listening is most often and most effectively done in small quantities, such as one-on-one meetings. It takes time and attention to focus on a client and make that client feel special. It takes skill to deploy active as well as passive listening and every other form of listening as needed in the moment. Being really listened to and understood makes a client person feel, well, special—kind of like some people feel when they sip cold-pressed juice infused with artisanal ice and nibble on a side of hand-crafted toast.

Best of 2014: LLL’s Favorite Tweets & Links on Listening and Lawyering

Listening theories. Listening techniques. Body language. Distraction. Music. Hearing impairment. Client development. Client service. Law-firm management. Collaboration. Cognitive styles. Creativity.

Courtesy Flickr/Brad K.
Courtesy Flickr/Brad K.

Asking questions. Mindfulness. Job satisfaction. Emotional intelligence. Psychology. Learning theories and myths. 

Listen Like a Lawyer has a pretty awesome Twitter feed collecting fantastic links on these listening-related topics and more. As an end-of-year review, this post collects one notable link from each month, and some honorable mentions at the end. If you want to share your favorite link about listening, please post in the comments.

January

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, The Multitasking Mess, Attorney at Work: http://www.attorneyatwork.com/the-multitasking-mess/

February

Gerry Riskin, Seven Keys to Retaining Your Clients, Amazing Firms; Amazing Practices http://www.gerryriskin.com/seven-keys-to-retaining-your-clients/

March

Adam Pasick, The Complete Guide to Listening to Music at Work, Quartz http://qz.com/185337/the-complete-guide-to-listening-to-music-at-work/

April

Art Markman, How to Figure Out What You’re Not Being Told, Fast Company http://www.fastcompany.com/3027793/work-smart/how-to-figure-out-what-youre-not-being-told

May

Wells H. Anderson & Seth G. Rowland, How to Choose the Right Tools for Any Client Communications, ABA GP Solo: Law Practice 2020 http://www.americanbar.org/publications/gp_solo/2014/may_june/how_choose_right_tools_any_client_communication.html

June

Judith E. Glaser & Richard D. Glaser, The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations, Harvard Business Review Blog https://hbr.org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations/

July

Josh Beser, 5 Ways to Follow Up Effectively (With Real-World Examples), JD Supra Business Advisor http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/5-ways-to-follow-up-effectively-with-re-98088/

August

Anne Collier, Style Matters: How Cognitive Diversity Affects Your Work, ABA Law Practice Today http://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/style-matters-cognitive-diversity-affects-work/

September

Gregory Ciotti, Critique v. Criticize: The Lost Art of Candor in the Workplace, The Next Web http://thenextweb.com/entrepreneur/2014/09/08/critique-vs-criticize-lost-art-candor-workplace/

October

Jeanne R. Lee, Making It Rain–Practical Tips from Those Who Do: Annita Menogan, ABA Women Rainmakers http://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/rainmaking-practical-tips/

November

Scott Eblin, How to Pull Yourself Back from the Brink of Your Caffeine-Driven, Smartphone-Addicted Life, Leading Blog: A Leadership Blog http://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/2014/11/how_to_pull_yourself_back_from.html

December

Allison C. Shields, Use the Spirit of the Holiday Season to Improve Your Networking, Slaw: Canada’s Online Legal Magazine http://www.slaw.ca/2014/12/01/use-the-spirit-of-the-holiday-season-to-improve-your-networking/

Honorable Mentions:

How to deal with the impaired lawyer examined in @AZStateBar @azbarcle Friday 12/12

Jennifer Romig:

Lawyers need to be open to the signs that colleagues and friends in the profession may be struggling with substance abuse and/or mental-health issues. On that note, this looks like a helpful and important CLE. And for those not in Arizona (myself included), this post contains some helpful linked resources as well.

Originally posted on AZ Attorney:

stress-word-blur-cloud

Law practice is a stress-prone profession. We know this through research and experience. But what can be done when we—or our colleagues—are responding to the stress in damaging ways?

As much as we might like to see stress in law practice simply evaporate, that is unlikely to happen. And it is stress and its multiple outcomes that make a State Bar seminar this Friday worth considering.

The title is “Protecting Your Practice: Ethically Dealing with the Impaired Lawyer,” and you can get more information (and register) here. As you’ll see, the panel of experts will examine how you can address—and maybe help—a colleague who is exhibiting warning signs of impairment.

The seminar will be held on this Friday morning, December 12. Because you’re likely busy, I’ll lighten your stress level by copying in here the seminar description:

“With the demands and stresses of the profession increasing…

View original 285 more words

Yes, I’m listening to Serial. Aren’t you?

The podcast Serial has, in the past few months, become the most popular podcast ever. As a dedicated bibliophile and not much of an audiobook fan, I’ve been surprised to become so engrossed. Serial reinvestigates the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high-school student from Baltimore who was killed in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and remains in prison. Serial raises a lot of questions about criminal justice, the legal system, and lawyering—and it manages to raise them in an interesting, suspenseful way. Listening is intertwined with these issues in a variety of ways, from our own experience as listeners to the vexed role of listening in the investigation and beyond.

Lawyer as listener

Lawyers are used to be the “tellers” in storytellers. As we listen to Serial, we experience a story as the audience. Producer Sarah Koenig controls the pace of the narrative both “week by week” and moment by moment. What immediately struck me—in a good way—was her use of pauses. She speaks quickly but in comprehensible segments, leaving space for understanding. She also uses the voices of others so well. Of course, one would expect nothing less from any affiliate of This American Life. Yet Serial brings a fresh appreciation for the interplay of voices and pauses delivered up for the listener’s ear. Just as one concrete benefit to spending your time with Serial: if you have a CLE presentation to prepare, it might inspire you to use a short video segment, or to experiment a little more with pauses and conversational suspense the way Koenig does.

It’s also interesting that each episode of Serial differs in length. Koenig doesn’t try to space out the narrative to fill a set length of time; she breaks off one coherent piece of the story, fleshes it out, and stops. An episode may be 28 minutes long, or it may be 53. The flexibility of the podcast format is extra courteous to the listeners: we can listen whenever and wherever we want, and we know that an episode is just exactly as long as the producer thinks it should be, no more. The fact it’s free doesn’t hurt either. (In episode 9 she asks for listener contributions, and to date enough has been gathered to support a second season.)

One more note on the listening experience, and this is a little more critical: Serial is in part a work of entertainment, and as such, it has own music. At first, the signature jaunty opening piano left me confused. The music also includes some looming, menacing moments, as well as plaintive notes associates with Hae, the victim. But when we later think of Serial and its phenomenal podcast success, I think we’re going to think of the jaunty piano. As Slate asked, “What the heck is Serial: A mystery? A comedy? A touching memorial?” I can understand why her family may be in pain to have her murder brought back into the public’s view—and the public’s ear—in this way.

Listening in the criminal-justice system

Then there is Serial‘s substantive coverage of how listening happens in the legal system. The listening comes in the form of information gathering, but also information-confirming, and the line between them is not always clear.

We hear several segments of taped interviews with a key witness—indeed, the state’s star witness—talking to Detectives Ritz and MacGillivary. One detective would ask a question that leads the witness to answer and perhaps ramble, at which point the other would follow up with pointed clarification, as Koenig points out. Perhaps it’s surprising that we hear any tactics at all in these interviews. Before taping, the witness and detectives spent three hours “ironing out” this witness’s statement, which was the standard practice back in 1999 and has since been discredited. As producer Sarah Koenig points out this untaped “pre-interview” is “where the mischief can happen, the contamination.” She’s quoting Jim Trainum, a former homicide detective and now consultant to police forces, innocence projects, and others (such as famous podcasts) on issues of interrogation techniques and false confessions. Serial hired Trainum as a consultant for the series.

In prosecution of Syed, the star witness had the virtue of providing valuable information the detectives hadn’t been able to get anywhere else. That witness also provided closure, “a satisfying investigative circle, a murder case on a silver platter,” Koenig points out. When detectives hear possibly conflicting details, they don’t push. The reason they don’t push are both explicit and much more subtle. In terms of obvious strategy, as Trainum states, “You don’t want to do something if it’s going to go against your theory of the case.” No confession is perfect; there will always be some inconsistencies. Those inconsistencies are handled very, very carefully because police don’t want to create “bad evidence.” Producer Koenig literally sputters when Trainum tells her the purpose of the interrogation is not so much to get to the truth as it is to make the case.

Compounding the conscious intent to make the case is the subconscious effect of verification bias. (Listen Like a Lawyer has previously posted on various cognitive biases including confirmation/verification bias.)

To illustrate verification bias, Trainum recreates the mental dialogue of a detective taking a statement, when that detective hears something that doesn’t quite fit: ”I want to believe you because you’re my witness and I think this is what happened and all that, so the fact that you’re giving me something that’s inconsistent and doesn’t fit my theory of the case, what does verification bias cause you [sic] to do? Ignore it and push it aside.”

By the time the detectives interview defendant Syed, as chronicled in episode 9, they have moved from information-gathering to what looks like information-confirming: they open his interview with a “theme.” One of the detectives introduced himself to Syed by suggesting that the detective himself had an ex-wife and could understand how “this” could happen. Serial doesn’t suggest that listening must always be open-ended and can never arrive at a central narrative. That would be naive. But Koenig is certainly suggesting the narrative that convicted Syed is problematic. In essence, Serial is listening to Syed’s story as of today, as it has developed post-conviction, in a way that the court system may or may not do. His petition for post-conviction relief is pending.

Serial has finished its ninth episode and has a handful more to go. For lawyers who have not yet picked up on it, I do recommend it. For those who are already listening to Serial, please share your thoughts. How has the listening experience affected you? What do you think it shows about listening within the legal system?

Holiday listening

In the holiday season, listening to family and friends can be a perfect gift. It doesn’t cost money and it’s deeply meaningful for the recipient. For the giver, sitting down with a cup of coffee and a friend can be a respite from the hectic, distracted, too-many-things-to-do feeling that ushers in the season.

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Flickr/Rhett Sutphin

But making the listening happen, which requires cutting through that hecticness and the digital clutter of life (even on Thanksgiving), is hard. For lawyers, one somewhat natural method to help ourselves give the gift of listening is by asking questions. For that, I recommend the TED website’s list of “10 Questions to Ask Your Family Around the Table.” 

Questions like “What was the hardest moment of your life?” are pretty big questions. And that actually makes them really good for lawyers, almost 60 percent of whom are introverts. Writing about lawyer introverts in The Legal Balance, Beth Buelow defined an introvert as “a person who gains energy from solitude and drains energy during social interaction.” Introverts tend to enjoy deeper one-on-one conversations (as opposed to superficial group chit-chat) which is why TED’s 10 Questions are so helpful. In her article on lawyer-introverts, Buelow talked about networking but might as well have been describing holiday conversations with family:

[S]how up with your natural curiosity, sense of humor and ability to listen. We all want to be seen and heard, and you’re giving a tremendous gift to a prospect or colleague [LLL: or relative or friend] when you really listen and give her your undivided attention.

Happy holidays to Listen Like a Lawyer’s readers. May each of you give and receive the gift of listening this holiday season.