Listening: a romantic thing to do

On this Valentine’s Day, if you are celebrating with a significant other, consider effective listening as a gift more valuable than chocolates or jewelry. (And that really means something, at least coming from the author of Listen Like a Lawyer.)

A few specifics that might make this day more romantic. These are inspired by some of the tweets and retweets from Listen Like a Lawyer:

  • Keep your focus on your partner.

  • Instead of saying “but” and then clarifying, say “yes and . . .” to keep the conversation going.

  • When discussing a problem, don’t try to solve it too soon.
  • Come into a room with the attitude of “Ah, there you are!”

  • No conversational “tee-ups” like “I’m just saying . . . .” Please.

  • No “screen face” when you look up from a device.

  • If all else fails, try gasping in agreement. Seriously.

Listening in law school: second-semester update

First-semester 1Ls face a daunting challenge: they are learning the law as taught in the language of the law—which they don’t know yet. This challenge is to some extent uncomfortable and unavoidable, but there are steps 1Ls can take and resources they can consult to ease the transition. As one of many examples, here is a helpful chapter from UMKC Professor Barbara Glesner-Fines’s law-school success book, with a section on active listening in the classroom. Listen Like a Lawyer previously outlined the idea of a first-semester listening check-up.

Second semester is different. Well, actually one thing is the same: it’s still a rather poor choice to surf the internet during class. A fundamental step in effective listening for law school novices as well as experts is to pay attention, as law school success coach Lee Burgess has discussed.

But the classroom experience really is different for second-semester 1Ls. Becoming more comfortable with legal language means that a law student should have a larger capacity to learn legal concepts and, ideally, should be increasingly efficient at doing so. One way to help assess your effectiveness at learning is to do another mid-semester listening check-up.

A second-semester 1L doing a listening self-assessment is now much better able to evaluate difficult but important questions such as the following:

  • When should my listening be informational – almost like a reporter taking notes?
  • When should my listening focus on the concepts?
  • What verbal and nonverbal cues is the professor offering that help signal his or her attitude toward the content?
  • When are these nonverbal cues complex, such as when a professor role-plays disdain for a particular holding and then switches to praising its effectiveness?
  • What can I do after class to better process and remember the information I just heard?
  • During class discussion, how do I change my listening when the professor asks questions and students respond?
  • When on call, what can I do to reduce stress and focus on listening to the question and connecting it to my class preparation?
  • What point do I think the professor is trying to make in spending time on a statute, case, or other legal source or idea?
  • Does the professor explicitly identify any particularly complex or important issues, or trending questions in the field?
  • What does the professor leave unsaid, such as by exploring several steps to a line of reasoning but then stopping to let the students draw their own conclusions?
  • What seems to be undisputed doctrine and what is more a matter of interpretation and disagreement?

Study groups may be a more valuable resource during second semester because the group members have a better collective idea of what they are doing. Study-group members might try a one-class listening experiment in which one member would try to record everything said in class, another member would paraphrase, and a third would record just the gist of important concepts. Comparing these notes could be quite informative about the structure of the big ideas and the details used to support those ideas.

Talking with a professor, if the professor is willing to discuss listening as a topic, could also be helpful. Some professors may engage with listening method itself, as in “I don’t think you should try to write down every word but rather should listen for understanding and write down key concepts and key moments during the lecture and discussion.”

Other professors may respond better to discussion of specific doctrines. A student could review her class notes and engage with the professor on whether the student’s takeaway is consistent with the professor’s main points about a specific substantive area of law. After meeting with a professor, the student can then reflect on what that discussion revealed about his listening.

As a final note, law students should be working with academic support deans, teaching assistants, and other academic resources. Listening effectively is a key part of learning effectively.

A brilliant, flawed listener

Listen Like a Lawyer spent last week sheltering in place during the Atlanta snow debacle. It was a good week to make crock-pot chili and spend some time re-reading a good book—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is a brilliant novelization of the Henry VIII saga. It has been chosen as the first book for the Wall Street Journal Book Club (Twitter hashtag #WSJBookClub). It will be discussed this weekend at the Crime in Law and Literature conference at the University of Chicago Law School.


The main character is not Henry VIII or Thomas More or Anne Boleyn, but Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was a commoner of uncommon distinction: a mercenary, a wool merchant, a lawyer, a politician, and Master Secretary to the king. This powerful and adept “nobody” earns the fear, if not the respect, of the English nobility at this “disordered” historical moment involving Henry VIII’s quest to father a male heir.

In reading and re-reading Wolf Hall, I was struck by Cromwell’s listening. The different ways he listens, and how he fails and succeeds by his listening, have much to teach lawyers.

Listening to his client’s spoken and unspoken instructions

As portrayed in Wolf Hall, Cromwell listens to what the king says as well as what he really means. Cromwell well understands that the king wishes to view himself as perfect although his desires and actions are certainly not. Thus there is a mismatch in what he says and what he wants to have done. “Sometimes it is a solace to me,” Henry says to Cromwell, “not to have to talk and talk. You were born to understand me, perhaps.”

Listening to his client’s mood

When Henry “rages,” Cromwell responds not with words but with quiet: “He sits quietly, watching Henry, trying by stillness to defuse the situation; to wrap the king in a blanketing silence, so that he, Henry, can listen to himself. It is a great thing, to be able to divert the wrath of the Lion of England.”

Listening to what cannot be written

At one point Cromwell is sent by the king to check on the former queen, Katherine, and their daughter, Mary. For Cromwell—by then the Master Secretary of the kingdom—this seems like a waste of time. Yet as he perceives the situation at Katherine’s lodgings, he understands why the king sent him in person: “The things that are happening cannot be put in a letter.”

The new queen, Anne Boleyn, seeks to make the old queen’s life miserable through her instructions to Katherine’s servants. The king does not want to contradict her openly yet does not want to bring misery to Katherine and Mary either. Only by in-person presence and careful listening to the servants’ statements of their orders can Cromwell comprehend the situation accurately and help the king avoid direct harm to Katherine while also appeasing Anne Boleyn.

Listening to everyone, not just the powerful

Cromwell speaks many languages and is a master “code-switcher,” able to converse with anyone of any station. He is always collecting bits of information about the common people’s mood toward the king. In one scene, Cromwell takes off his fine ring and helps the cook to chop meat as he learns what the people are saying about Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.

At times Cromwell listens to what he was not meant to hear, such as what people really think of him. He passes by a doorway and hears a sycophantic musician discussing not only his own desire to see Cromwell’s execution but also the musician’s belief Anne Boleyn was not a virgin when she married Henry VIII. This information helps Cromwell first assist the king in marrying Anne Boleyn and later to prosecute her.

A failure of listening

Despite Cromwell’s many strengths as a listener, he fails at one crucial moment. For years early in his career, Cromwell served Cardinal Wolsey, who became his mentor. Wolsey is a powerful man, handling much of the kingdom’s business including arranging marriages among nobles. In an early scene in Wolf Hall, Wolsey meets with Anne Boleyn’s father, brother to the powerful Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell stands in the corner.

The cardinal and Monseigneur Boleyn discuss Anne Boleyn’s unsanctioned decision to enter a marriage contract with a young nobleman. Cromwell says nothing as Wolsey insults the entire Boleyn family as lowborn, and attacks Anne Boleyn in particular, calling her “spoiled goods.” This is not, as it turns out, a good career move for him.  Later, in privacy, Cromwell shares with the cardinal the rumors from London about the king’s growing alignment with the Boleyn family. He has already begun an affair with Mary Boleyn (popularly depicted in The Other Boleyn Girl). Cromwell’s action–or really, his inaction–during this crucial meeting has helped to set in motion the cardinal’s downfall. “Why did you not speak up?” the cardinal asks. “How could I have introduced the topic?” Cromwell replies.

The Boleyns later take revenge; the cardinal loses everything and dies alone. Cromwell manages not to go down as well, instead transitioning to the king’s service, where he helps the king refute Anne Boleyn’s supposed marriage contract. Cromwell then masterminds the legal and political strategy to separate England from the Catholic Church.

Wolf Hall is a worthwhile read for lawyers, especially those with an interest in literature, history, or politics. If you have read it, please share thoughts in the comments here. The second book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, narrates Cromwell’s actions during Anne Boleyn’s reign and fall. (In an early scene in Bring Up the Bodies, one of the queen’s courtiers tries to share gossip about her with Cromwell, who is distracted and inattentive. “You are usually such a good listener,” she says.) Hilary Mantel’s third and final installment in the series, The Mirror and the Light, is forthcoming in 2015.