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.”

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