Lawyers and hearing loss: two profiles

Hearing loss is a challenge for anyone whose job requires communication. Last week, Listen Like a Lawyer reviewed Katherine Bouton’s excellent book Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You. This week features interviews with two lawyers who experienced quite different trajectories of hearing loss but shared a similar open, constructive mindset.

Image%5b1%5dPatti Richards is a tax attorney practicing independently in Atlanta. She lost some hearing in her right ear after contracting measles at age 5. She had experimental surgery as a child and went on to teach high school, attend law school, and practice law for ten years until 1999.

At that point, when she was 50, her hearing had become severely degraded. Her left ear did not hear at all, and the hearing in her right ear was weakening. Richards had surgery on the right ear to reconstruct the deteriorating bone structure. The damage turned out to be too extensive. “Since then,” Richards said, “it has been a process of constant reinvention.”

Richards began the process of fitting a hearing aid. Her experience was typical in that several readjustments were necessary: “The first time I left the audiologist’s office, the elevator bell dinged on my floor—then it dinged two more times.” She has since gotten good adjustments on a Phonak hearing aid. She does not need a special cell phone that cuts feedback; she holds a regular cell phone so as to reduce feedback in the hearing aid, or she uses speakerphone.

The nature of her hearing loss does not lend itself to cochlear implants. Her remaining hearing is compromised by allergy symptoms, so she takes an aggressive course of allergy shots.

Richards is a tax attorney. For listening to clients, she uses the auditory input with help from the hearing aid, as well as other inputs: “You can listen other ways by reading what they say, their gestures and body language.” But she noted that with a tax practice, what her clients need most of all is help understanding tax jargon and tax consequences. Thus her practice leans more heavily on her speaking and writing skills in explaining how tax law works.

“I’ve been fortunate my whole life,” she said. She recalled the sacrifice her parents made for her have the experimental surgery as a child; thinking about that sacrifice made it easier for her to accept the hearing loss and move on. “For a long time, I didn’t have to tell people about it, but now I do,” she said. “But I won’t let it drag me down and stop me.”

Dave Thomas has a “tremendously personal” practice as an executive-compensation attorney with Wilson Sonsini in Silicon Valley. At age 40, he suffered substantial hearing loss in his right ear after a sinus infection.image001-2

Thomas worked with doctors for three months to determine whether the hearing loss was permanent. A hearing test, CT scan and MRI revealed that the problems with his hearing weren’t structural. The doctors said there was a chance the hearing would return, but Thomas faced a choice: “You can have diminished hearing and hope it comes back, or you can treat it.”

The choice wasn’t difficult for Thomas. He had seen his own father struggle with hearing loss, caused by service as an artillery officer, in his older years. “It took forever to convince him to get hearing aids,” Thomas said, and when his father did begin using hearing aids, “it was like night and day watching him be be able to engage in conversation again and engage in life again.”

After the battery of tests, Thomson got a hearing aid, which—as is the case for many if not all hearing-aid users—has required some adjustments. Thomas had lost the middle auditory tones, which led to difficulty tracking conversation in groups and hearing what direction speech is coming from. The hearing aid provides valuable amplification of these tones, but too much amplification sometimes means Thomas can hear ceiling fans. He has worked hard with his audiologist to amplify the tones where he has trouble while avoiding the distraction of amplifying other tones.

Other strategies including positioning himself to put his “good side” toward the room. If it’s a boardroom negotiation, that means sitting on the corner of the table. When he speaks on panels, he asks to sit on the far right of the panel. Thomas describes himself as a “right ear person” until the hearing loss; now he uses a headset in his left ear for phone conferences. Many people struggling with hearing loss describe wearing their hear longer to cover the hearing aids, but Thomas said he had already started wearing relatively longer hair before the hearing loss. Regardless of hairstyle, he said, the hearing aid is small enough to not be noticeable unless you’re looking for it.

Thomas has some advice to other lawyers who think they may have hearing loss. “My advice is that number one, they figure it out. Go see an audiologist or ENT and have a hearing test. As lawyers, we don’t ever give our clients advice without making sure know the facts, but with personal health we’re often willing to make assumptions and avoid fact gathering.”

He also praised the technology and various cost options for handling hearing loss. Hearing aids can be pricey, but Costco is one option for reducing the cost and gaining flexibility with adjustments and returns, he said.

Thomas could do well as a coach if he decides to transition out of his executive-compensation practice. “If you need a hearing aid, own it. Deal with it,” he said. “The hearing aid lets me sit back in board meetings and go back to listening and thinking instead of worrying about hearing.”

Lawyers and hearing loss

Hearing is necessary for effective listening. Thus, hearing loss is a critical issue for professions that require listening, such as lawyering. In her frank and informative book, Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You, former newspaper editor Katherine Bouton describes her struggle with hearing loss while trying to do a job comparable in many ways to lawyering.

ImageAs her hearing was declining—always in conjunction with personal stress such as her father’s death—Bouton was faced with boisterous editorial meetings and intense individual conversations. She tried to hide her deteriorating hearing for many years but ultimately began to accept help via hearing aids and other technology. Bouton tells her story in such an honest way; I can’t recommend this book enough. For further praise of the book, see Seth Horowitz’s New York Times review.

Hearing loss is far more common than many would expect. An estimated 48 million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss (about 17 percent of the population). “Nearly one in five people, across all age groups, has trouble understanding speech, and many cannot hear certain sounds at all,” Bouton writes, citing Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Frank Lin. With approximately 1 million American lawyers in practice, the same math suggests that more than 170,000 lawyers are facing some degree of hearing loss.

Yet hearing loss is “an invisible disability”: “There’s no white cane to signal a problem, no crutches, . . . no bandages or braces,” Bouton writes. The lack of outward signals can mask various efforts to compensate. “Most hearing-impaired people quickly learn to nod or smile or respond in a noncommittal way, taking their signal from the speaker and the people around them.” These forms of compensation are imperfect at best, as Bouton acknowledges: “I lose the train of the discussion and ask a question that was just answered. I think we’re talking about one thing when we’re talking about something completely different.” And over time, the accumulation of awkwardness can lead to isolation and withdrawal. Bouton describes how she maintains her social lifelines, yet she also decided long ago not to participate in group conversations except with her closest friends.

Shouting Won’t Help is both a personal narrative and a treatise on hearing impairment. Bouton traces her own diminished hearing and environmental aggravators—primarily, noise. She acknowledges her fear of the conditions associated with hearing loss such as depression, heart disease, insomnia, and dementia. As to dementia, the correlation maybe a side effect of social isolation or cognitive overload, or there may be a common pathology—which, to Bouton and anyone facing hearing loss, is “deeply distressing.”

Bouton’s work is a particularly helpful read for lawyers because her work as a senior editor at the New York Times had a lot in common with lawyering. She struggled in phone conversations, editorial meetings where people talked over one another, and group lunches in noisy restaurants. She missed a lot in large public events such as the Broadway plays she was assigned to cover. “I communicated with my writers as much as possible either face-to-face, where I could read their lips, or by e-mail. I e-mailed people who were ten feet away. But there were a couple of writers who wanted to talk—by phone. Often these calls would go on for a half hour or forty minutes, with me catching just as much as I needed to murmur occasionally ‘That sounds good,’ ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ or ‘Well, just get it to me as soon as you can.'”

As Bouton came to terms with her impairment and need for hearing aids, she began talking to some trusted former colleagues. They had noticed behaviors that could describe lawyers’ attempt to compensate as well. As one friend and colleague remarked, “’I did notice that you often held back at meetings, and didn’t necessarily engage in conversational back-and-forth after you’d given your own assessment of a piece. . . . I recognized a certain reticence in your approach to the job. I could see from your reading of our knottier science stories that your analytical gifts were considerable, and yet I sensed a reluctance to use them fully in face-to-face interactions. I attributed this reticence to temperament, or to a discomfort with the management of the magazine, or to . . . a waning of interest in the workaday routines of journalism after years in the trenches.’”

As her hearing loss became more severe, Bouton was forced to accept the loss and seek help. Her book describes many methods for addressing hearing loss, from hearing aids and cochlear implants to phone amplifiers, caption technology, and special alarm clocks that mimic the sun at dawn. Technology called hearing loops can help with otherwise incomprehensible noise in public spaces such as museums and ticket loops. Bouton worked intensively with doctors and audiologists, using virtually every technology available. Yet she also experienced rough transition with some of her hearing aids and a missed opportunity to fully adjust to the cochlear implant.

Despite aversion to being a “joiner,” she also joined the Hearing Loss Association and attended meetings, where she met new people and kept up with new technology. Although her adjustments were time-consuming and results imperfect at time, Bouton concludes the book with gratitude—both for the many advances making now a “good time to be deaf” and, on an individual level, for the “freedom of coming clean” and not having to “fake it” anymore.

Next week Listen Like a Lawyer will feature interviews with lawyers who have faced and adjusted to hearing impairment in their life and work. Please share your thoughts below or contact me at if you would like to share your experience with hearing loss.

Listening in the midst of turn sharks

Conferences are a unique listening opportunity, especially for those of us who regularly stand on the speaking side of the podium. Sitting in the audience at a conference presentation lets us experience and reflect on our own listening: are we perhaps just as distracted as those we complain about when we have the podium? If we tune out for just a moment, how hard is it to reintegrate into the speaker’s flow of ideas?

Flickr/Magnus Brath
Flickr/Magnus Brath

Being in the audience also gives us the social experience of listening. Listening and learning are not merely acts of individual will; our perception and comprehension are affected by the acts of those around us trying to do the same thing. There are some interesting social aspects of social listening I have learned about since starting this blog—for example, “turn sharks.”

I first read about turn sharks in Frederick Erickson’s book Talk and Social Theory. The phrase describes aggressive behavior during conversational turns—basically, interrupting someone else’s turn to speak and taking over. When there is a potential opportunity to speak, turn sharks circle the conversation opportunistically. They look for weaknesses in the speaker or pauses that would allow them to break in. If the turn shark thinks he or she can make the point better or has a related point that simply must be heard in tandem with what is being said, the shark raises a hand, uses nonverbal cues to enter the conversation, and sometimes just starts talking.

Turn sharks can be just a very strong version of what speakers want and what listeners in the audience need—that is, other actively engaged members of the audience. And a turn shark may be so aggressive because he or she really does have the most relevant or efficient thing to say. The speaker may wish to use such comments to advance the conversation.

But sometimes the turn shark begins to dominate, or to direct a conversation away from the speaker’s goals. To manage the dynamic, a speaker can try several strategies:

  • Demonstrate comfort with pauses and silence.
  • Listen receptively to each audience member’s comment, reinforcing that person’s autonomy as the speaker.
  • “Listen” visually by scanning the entire room to see who has a hand up, rather than opting for volunteer with the most aggressive body language.
  • Actively engage others in the audience by explicitly giving them a turn to speak.
  • Use a method such as a “talking stick” to reinforce who has the floor.
  • Protect audience members who have been targeted by a turn shark, returning the conversational focus back to them.

For single-session meetings such as at conferences, where the audience mixes and reconstitutes for each individual session, turn sharks may be as nomadic and unpredictable as real sharks. For ongoing social situations where the same audience comes together over time—such as, for example, in a class—conversation leaders may need to institute more structured conversational customs to let the sharks have their say while keeping others out of their jaws.

Here are a few questions for listeners and for speakers reflecting on the group dynamics when they involve the audience:

  • If you have been a member of an audience that included a turn shark, how did you react? How did the turn of conversation affect your listening?
  • If you yourself have been a turn shark, what was your motivation? How did you insert yourself into the conversation, and what was the impact on the group?
  • If you have led a single-session meeting that included one or more turn sharks, how did you handle the conversational flow?
  • If you have lead a multi-session group that included one or more turn sharks, how did you handle the conversational flow?

Many thanks to Emory Law Professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse for feedback on this post.

Listen to learn: Four ways listening can help you get the most out of your externship

Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to welcome this guest post by Kendall L. Kerew, Co-Director of Georgia State University College of Law’s Externship Program.


An externship (a field placement for academic credit) can be a great opportunity for law students to learn outside of the classroom alongside practicing lawyers and judges. If you are a law student beginning an externship this semester, you might want to consider the following ways listening skills can help you gain the most from your experience. If you don’t have an externship this semester, think about how you might be able to incorporate listening skills into your approach to a current or future internship or summer job.

1. Listen to maximize opportunities.

When you begin your externship, you may have a sense of what you want to learn from the experience. While it is important to clarify your own learning goals and expectations, it will add to your experience if you ask your supervising attorney or judge about his or her goals and expectations. What does he or she want to teach you? What experiences does he or she think you shouldn’t miss? What kind of assignments should you expect? What observation opportunities will you have? If you listen carefully to how your supervisor answers these questions, you will have a good idea of whether your goals are realistic and achievable.

2. Listen to increase understanding.

All externs have the shared goal of delivering a quality, useful work product. To get one step closer to achieving this goal, be sure you know what your supervisor wants. Listen to all parts of the assignment to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do and why you are being asked to do it. Ask clarifying questions to determine the scope and application of the assignment. Listen to the answers and ask follow-up questions.

Listening to your supervisor is just as important after you finish the assignment. Be sure to actively seek your supervisor’s assessment. Hear the feedback. Be open-minded and receptive to constructive criticism. You can’t improve without knowing where you went wrong or what you could have done better.

3. Listen to what others have to say.

You will interact with many non-lawyers during your externship. Be sure to listen to what they have to say. The administrative assistants, court personnel, and other interns/externs who support your supervising lawyer or judge can provide invaluable information about office procedures, preferences, and expectations. Listening to non-lawyers can provide you with a different and important perspective about the practice of law.

4. Listen to yourself.

Throughout your externship experience, you will be expected to actively reflect on what you are learning, not only about the law, but also about yourself and the formation of your professional identity. Set aside a few minutes each day to focus on yourself and engage in self-reflection. Ask yourself questions that will help you to figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be. What did you like or dislike about a particular assignment or area of law? What professional or unprofessional lawyering practices did you encounter and how did they make you feel? What lessons did you learn from observing the lawyers and judges around you? How do you want to practice law? Assess your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, and map out your plan for the future (both immediate and long-term). The work you put into figuring out what kind of lawyer you want to be may prove to be the most important work you do all semester.

Kendall L. Kerew, Co-Director, Georgia State University College of Law Externship Program

The author is grateful to her externship program co-director, Andrea Curcio, for her helpful feedback and unflagging support and to Jennifer Romig for inviting her to write this guest post.