For law students: summer evaluations and listening

Name a skill that summer employers may or may not evaluate directly, but that can enhance performance on every skill they do evaluate.

Yes, it’s listening.

Most obviously, listening is relevant to the soft skills most employers are likely to evaluate. But listening also influences “harder” skills such as research and writing. And listening is certainly an aspect of a law student’s overall potential as a lawyer.

Soft skills

Soft skills are basically anything associated with the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people.”  Legal employers may evaluate soft skills in categories such as professionalism, courtesy, and general presence, just to name a few. Here are some examples of listening behaviors that may lead to strong evaluations of soft skills:

  • Never looking at your phone while talking with another attorney or client without a convincing explanation (e.g., “Excuse me for one moment. I’m waiting for partner x to let me know if I can attend the deposition right after this lunch.”)
  • Strong listening during any opportunities to observe events such as mediations and depositions (e.g. asking a senior attorney afterwards, “I noticed that the witness kept qualifying her statements with the words ‘as I sit here.’ Does that language mean something specific?”)
  • Active listening during lunch with a mentor (E.g., “You mentioned that your first year in practice was really challenging. What was hard for you?”)
  • Respectful behavior and body language during the evaluation process, especially with any constructive criticisms (e.g. keeping arms gently resting in one’s lap during a discussion of how an assignment could have been stronger)

Hard skills

Listening indirectly influences performance of hard skills such as fact-gathering and research and writing. Here are some examples of listening behaviors that may lead to strong evaluations of hard skills:

  • Noticing and asking about important information that a supervising attorney forgot to mention, such as the desired format for an assignment
  • Discerning what an assigning attorney’s word choice indicates about whether he or she thinks the assignment should be relatively easy or hard
  • Taking notes effectively during a meeting so that follow-up questions are kept to a minimum
  • Observing and understanding a fact witness’s body language and asking questions that follow up on an area where the witness may be hesitant to share information

Lawyering potential

Professors Marjorie Schultz and Sheldon Zedeck have generated a list of 26 “lawyering effectiveness” factors. These factors provide a useful outline of what makes a lawyer effective; thus, law students who show potential in these areas are showing potential to be an effective practicing lawyer. Listening is explicitly listed under the “communications” category, and it indirectly influences many others. Showing effective listening is thus likely to positively influence the overall evaluation of a law student’s potential as a lawyer.


The sounds of graduation

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of celebrating graduation with another class of law students. Writing Listen Like a Lawyer has me thinking a lot about how lawyers and law students interact with conversation, voice, and sound. Thus I approached this year’s graduation with a particular focus on sound.

Flickr/Yovany Alas
Flickr/Yovany Alas

Graduation ceremonies are memorable for so many reasons. The sun rises, and faculty and students don their velvet-corded regalia. There is something about wearing that beret with the yellow tassel. Maybe the hat changes the way sound conducts into the ears? I can certainly hear the tassel brushing against the velvet whenever my head moves. Likewise the dark heavy fabric of the gown whispers with every movement.

And then there is the ceremony itself. At the law school where I teach, graduation always starts with a rousing prelude of bagpipes. If the true sign of intelligence is, as Fitzgerald said, the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind and retain the ability to function, then bagpipes are a musical intelligence test: screeching yet sonorous, grating yet glorious. When the pipers stop, their last hiss of muscular breath dies away. The silence that follows is sanctified.

And then, the speeches. Fed through a huge sound system, the voices echo as statements from the podium ring out through amplifiers. Experienced speakers project short sentences deliberately and then pause, letting those sentences expand and settle on the ears of hundreds or thousands in the audience. Inexperienced speakers — for example, students — may speak too quickly and audibly shuffle their notes at the podium. Yet their flushed faces and nervous laughter give us all a moment to appreciate youth and their accomplishment. The faculty and family laugh at their jokes and silently send well wishes toward them and all the graduates seated in rows.

And then there is the reading of the names. It is . . . interminable. Looking from page to page in the program to search where we are in the sequence, audience members including faculty sit, wriggle, writhe, fidget, and wait. One can see students, family, and faculty alike cycle between attentive body language, distracted fidgeting, and a kind of numb surrender. As the reading of the names goes on. Each name is so special to the person hearing it. And to their families and friends, of course. Of course. I absolutely love hearing my former students’ names. But together in minute upon minute upon minute, the names start to run together.

But then there are . . . the cowbells! And the ululations! And the kazoos and vuvuzelas! The sounds of celebration lend a festive air and give everyone a focus and even a chuckle among the onslaught of name after name after name. This year, the loving outburst from the audience: “That’s my sister!!!”

My student memories of graduation are more visual than auditory. I can remember how I checked my mortarboard in the mirror because it kept tipping, how the stages looked with speakers and administrators arrayed in their finery, and how the sun seemed to shine just a little bit brighter and the clouds to look a bit puffier than on another typical beautiful day. And to a degree, I can remember the essence of what they said. (Okay maybe not this speech, which somehow was bland enough to warrant coverage years later in the Onion.)

Although the sounds blur and are mostly forgotten, the sounds of the day contribute to a vivid sensory experience that makes a unique memory. And there is one word, repeated over and over in so many voices, in small groups and in large circles, in a parent or mentor’s murmur into the ear of a velvet-capped graduate: “Congratulations.”


Thanks to Jenn Mathews for reviewing an earlier version of this essay.

A high-intensity listening workout

Courtesy Luke Lawreszuk/

Tabata workouts — very short, incredibly intense workouts — are all the rage right now. In classic form, a Tabata workout is 20 seconds of high intensity work followed by 10 seconds off, repeated 8 times. The formula came exercise-science professor Izumi Tabata’s work with the Japanese speed-skating team. While an amateur athlete’s Tabata workout really doesn’t need to use this exact formula, what it does require is very intense bursts of physical activity and relatively shorter rests, repeatedly. The major benefit and the reason people are so excited is the excellent physiological results from these relatively short workouts.

Could there be such a thing as a Tabata workout for listening? In the spirit of exercise, here is a thought exercise on what such a listening workout might look like. The benefits are enticing: becoming a better listener through short intense practices rather than a long, slogging, perhaps inefficient effort.

Applying the methodology first requires some goal-setting. Intensely practicing the wrong thing doesn’t help. So here are a few thoughts on what a hypothetical Tabata workout might look like for lawyers, or any professional interested in an intense listening workout.

The “workout” below comprises five segments, with ten intense minutes per segment, to target some tough aspects of listening. If the average attention span is five minutes (and that is a 2013 number so perhaps too high), then these ten-minute segments really are intense, especially if done sequentially with breaks for an approximately one-hour workout. Thoughts on other, better “Tabata listening” segments are certainly welcome in the comments or by e-mail.

1. Being present

To do this segment, you need an in-person conversation partner to talk in detail about a topic for ten uninterrupted minutes. If you want to really “feel the burn” in this workout, the topic should be something you aren’t actually interested in, perhaps an esoteric hobby or ERISA (apologies to ERISA lawyers). Tell your conversation partner the premise and ask him or her to talk, talk, talk for those ten solid minutes.

Put away phone, pen, paper, and any other distractions. Maintain a comfortable level of eye contact. You’re not trying to remember what the person is saying, help the person, or chime in with your story. It is unfriendly and essentially impossible to use no body language at all, but try not to interject even with encouraging sounds like “um-hmm.”

The only two requirements are being present in the conversation, and making the conversation partner know you are present. If that person is distracted by you or thinks you are distracted, you failed. Start the segment over.

2. Remembering

This next segment engages the memory aspect of listening. Many models of listening such as Professor Judi Brownell’s HURIER model emphasize “remembering” as an integral part of effective listening. Think of Dorrie in the movie Finding Nemo: great person (if a person were an animated blue fish), but not a great listener (due to her lack of short-term memory).

The point of this segment is to strengthen your memory circuits when listening. You need something to listen to for another ten minutes. It could be live or recorded such as a TED talk, CLE webcast, or YouTube clip. During the ten minutes, listen intensely. Take no notes.

And then, as soon as time is up, write down everything you can remember from what you just heard, as close to verbatim as you can. Don’t delve into your own reactions or interpretations; those are not the right kind of memories for these purposes. In fact, responding with one’s own reaction may disguise poor listening caused by lack of attention or memory.

This is an exercise where the 20-10 Tabata proportion could be quite useful: After the ten minutes of talk time, spend a full five minutes trying to remember and write down what was said. Don’t do anything else during that five minutes even if you’re sure you’ve remembered everything you can possibly remember. Giving up too soon would shortchange the workout.

3. Active listening

The hallmark of active listening is accurately paraphrasing back the statements of your conversation partner to demonstrate that you are listening. For this segment, ask a conversation partner to talk for ten minutes about a topic of interest and to intentionally pause at natural stopping points. At each pause, paraphrase back what you just learned. Then add a simple encouraging cue such as “Go on.”

Even if you aren’t interested in the topic or have the most amazingly relevant story to share about what he or she just said, don’t do anything but paraphrase back and cue the conversation partner to keep speaking. At the end, ask that person for feedback, particularly whether he or she felt that you understood the information accurately.

4. Listening to a jerk

Many lawyers participate in conversations where the other person’s statements are wrong, misleading, frustrating, seemingly disingenuous, and perhaps even dangerous. Listening effectively while angry is one of the hardest things to do. Thus it is perfect for a Tabata workout.

Find a friend with whom you strongly disagree on a topic. Ask the friend, for purposes of this segment, to discuss that topic in very strong terms for ten minutes. Ideally the discussion will involve over-the-top statements and some ad hominem attacks.

The listening challenge is to steady yourself. Breathe. Hold your body language in place and try to keep it receptive to the conversation. Maintain eye contact and try not to use negative facial expressions such as pursed lips.

And use the same active-listening techniques practiced in the prior workout. That means rephrasing what you are hearing. Even if you disagree. Even if it’s a personal attack. Even if you would never voluntarily paraphrase such a thing in a litigation setting because of the transcript. The idea here is stressing the listening and emotional circuits to strengthen them.

5. Listening to yourself

You don’t need a conversation partner for this one. Sit quietly and comfortably with no distractions. Just listen to yourself for ten minutes. What thoughts and feelings you experiencing? Don’t stop and make a note. Just try to stay in tune with your own inner dialogue.

This is a form of mindfulness meditation. Jeena Cho and others are doing amazing work in promoting mindfulness among lawyers. Seeking constant input and distractions may serve as a kind of dopamine loop or numbing behavior, and therefore being mindful may be the most difficult workout of all. In fact, Jeena’s interview with Chris Bradley of the Lawyerist makes the same workout analogy suggested here: “Just like you can practice running a marathon by regularly running, you can build up your mental resilience by having a regular meditation practice.”

Conclusion: Physiologically and psychologically, real Tabata workouts work because they are intense. With this proposed “Tabata workout for listening,” your ears won’t be sore, but your brain may be exhausted — as well as stronger and more resilient for your next real-world listening challenge.