Trial lawyers: five key contexts for listening

Effective listening has universal themes, such as the role of focused attention. But much of listening is also context-specific. Listening in a public meeting is obviously different than in a one-on-one conversation.

Trial lawyers face at least five distinct listening contexts. Each presents different listening opportunities and challenges. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to share this Q&A on listening contexts with trial lawyer, mediator, and trial-advocacy instructor Jay D. Brownstein.

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LLL: Jay, thank you for your time. What do you think are the most important contexts that trial lawyers need to be thinking about when they think about their listening?

JDB: Generally speaking, there are several areas where trial lawyers need to effectively listen:

  • First, when speaking with potential and existing clients.
  • Second, in witness examination, both in deposition and at trial. As lawyers, we are often intent on covering a predetermined outline of topics and questions. But effective advocacy requires us to carefully listen and respond to what the witness is saying.
  • Third, communicating with judges at the trial and appellate level.
  • Fourth, communicating with juries. In voir dire, you listen intently to potential jurors’ answers, looking for clues as to their beliefs and predispositions. In trial, you must “listen” to nonverbal communication from jurors (as well as witnesses and the judge).
  • Fifth, mediation, an important tool for conflict resolution. It has become a necessary aspect of litigation and requires strong listening skillls.

LLL: What are the listening challenges in conversing with a potential client?

JDB: The initial client interview can be especially challenging because the client and attorney have somewhat different goals. The client wants to tell her entire story, while the lawyer is trying to quickly determine if the client has a case worthy of further exploration.

In telling their stories, clients usually don’t know what facts are important. They frequently spend time telling you things that may have little legal significance, while leaving out truly important details. The lawyer must carefully listen to what the potential client is saying (or not saying), but also guide the conversation to facts important to the legal claim analysis.

So there is a constant tension between allowing the client to talk (and being professional and courteous), and quickly learning the necessary facts to make a case determination.

LLL: How does the listening task change when your potential client becomes your actual client?

JDB:  Throughout a representation, it is critically important to maintain effective communication with your client, which always requires listening. Clients often try to tell us things that can be very important to a successful outcome of their case, although we may not always be receptive to it. For example, to effectively advocate pain and suffering in a personal injury case the trial lawyer needs to fully explore and come to understand how the client’s injuries have affected them.

In all cases, it is critically important to develop and maintain a relationship of trust with the client that can only occur through effective listening. If clients are to entrust us with their most important confidences—which can be crucial to achieving a successful result in their case—they must know that we are listening and trying to truly understand them and their circumstances.

LLL:​ I saw a statistic from one state’s court system that only 7 percent of cases go to trial. That means a lot of them settle, and the mediation process plays a major role in settlement. How can lawyers use listening to help their clients during mediation?

JDB:  Over the past 10-15 years, mediation has evolved to become the primary means of resolving cases short of a jury trial. Available statistics suggest that a high percentage of mediated cases settle either at mediation or shortly thereafter.  For example, the EEOC reports that in 2012 over 76% of its mediated cases settled within 100 days after mediation. For clients and their lawyers, mediation is often the last best chance for a certain resolution without putting their fates in the hands of strangers (juries and judges). Lawyers should not only prepare themselves for mediation as though preparing for trial (by reviewing all discovery, depositions, research on key legal issues, etc.), but they must also prepare their clients.

This preparation involves not only explaining the mediation process, but also listening and openly talking with clients about their expectations. It does little good to tell a client what she can expect in a mediation without also helping her to set goals and manage her own expectations. Listening plays a key role in this – you must first learn and understand how a client thinks before attempting to help modify that thinking and allow for the best chance of a successful mediation.

LLL:  If the dispute lasts long enough, at some point, the lawyer will take and defend depositions and eventually examine witnesses at trial. What do you think are the keys to effective listening in the context of witness testimony?

JDB:​  Particularly in early years of practice, many lawyers prepare for depositions and trial testimony by developing extensive witness outlines covering numerous topics and containing detailed questions (sometimes including the expected answers). But as trial lawyers well know, testimony never goes exactly as planned or scripted, especially in the case of direct testimony. Learning to get the witness talking, listening to what the witness actually says (as opposed to what we expect or hope to hear), and following up to the actual responses, is critical to effective examination. This is something that, like many experienced practitioners, I am constantly aware of and seeking to improve upon.

The more an examination, even cross examination, is like a true conversation with each side listening and responding to the other, the more effective you can be at eliciting key points (good and bad) you want the jury (or judge on summary judgment) to hear and remember. All witnesses can surprise and frustrate a trial lawyer; the key is to listen and understand what you can and can’t do with a witness.

LLL: For the trial lawyer, a very important audience is the trial judge. How can lawyers use listening to better understand the trial judge?

JDB:  All trial judges are busy with heavy case dockets, and appreciate brevity and clarity. On any given civil motions calendar there could be 40 to 50 cases. The judge needs to know what type of matter is before her (discovery motion, procedural issue, etc.), what she is being asked to do, and why. Judges will generally tell you what they need to understand or hear in order to issue a ruling.

The most skilled lawyers I have observed listen carefully to questions from the bench, whether directed to them or opposing counsel, and react by instantly tailoring their argument to the point or points the judge seems most interested in or confused by. Most importantly, the best lawyers don’t waste the court’s time with unnecessary argument. If a judge indicates, directly or indirectly, that they likely agree with you, acknowledge it and move on. If there is nothing further to say, stop talking and sit down.

LLL:When cases do go up on appeal, listening during oral argument is another intense experience. What are the listening challenges of oral argument, and how do you deal with them?

JDB:  ​In appellate advocacy, the same principals apply but with even greater force. Accomplished appellate lawyers say that the best appellate arguments are like living-room conversations, except that the advocate’s window of opportunity to persuade is narrow and can easily be lost if the lawyer does not carefully listen and directly respond to questions.

Usually, a question from the bench is much more than an opportunity to expound on an issue or portion of your prepared argument. It tells you exactly which part of your argument is most troubling to the court or to the particular judge with the question. And it gives you the chance (in 60 or 90 seconds) to persuade that judge, and perhaps others, to your position.

Preparation is key, as you must anticipate and be ready to immediately give your best response to a myriad of issues and related questions from the bench. But absent insightful listening, the chance to persuade will be lost.

Jay, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with Listen Like a Lawyer.

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