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.

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