“Listening” to the legal job market

“Listening” on social media is not really listening (which requires spoken or nonverbal input) — but it’s an essential skill for lawyers and law students nonetheless.

Practicing lawyers can use social media to understand more about their clients and competition, as legal marketing and social media expert Nancy Myrland discusses here. Listening to social media is valuable to legal scholars as well; Professor Randy Picker of the University of Chicago uses Twitter in part as a “listening medium” and “curated news feed” on topics of interest. Along with several practicing lawyers, Picker describes his experiences with social media in this informative panel discussion on “Social Media and Your Law Practice,” sponsored by the ABA Antitrust Division.

Courtesy Flickr/bspusf

And law students seeking jobs can listen on social media for a variety of reasons:

  • to better understand a practice area
  • to prepare for interviews by learning about potential employers
  • to explore opportunities for contributing to a potential employer’s social-media presence

Listening to the hot topics and background language in a practice area

Listening to social media can build your knowledge base about the field you’re interested in. For anyone — job seeker or not — social media is a fantastic resource for identifying emerging and recurring legal issues. Emory Law School 3L Anna Saraie uses law firm blogs to learn more about the area she hopes to practice in, labor and employment: “I have bookmarked several blogs run by firms that specialize in labor and employment. The information on these blogs came in handy especially during my interviews because it allowed me to engage in interesting conversations about current issues in the field.”

Social media provides a window not just into “hot topics,” but on a subtler level, into the way experts think and talk in a particular field. The kind of vocabulary and conversational patterns you use in a law school classroom are sometimes not the same as the vocabulary and conversational patterns in a lawyer’s day-to-day life. While social media is not a replacement for real conversation (at least we hope not), it can provide helpful background in hot topics, baseline knowledge, and the specialized vocabulary in a field of law.

Preparing for interviews and networking

Social media can also educate about individual firms. A law student interested in a real-estate firm, for example, could learn more about whether the firm generally represents developers or lenders. A student interested in patent law could understand whether the firm’s practice leans toward a scientific or engineering specialty.

Recent Virginia Law graduate Michelle Carmon used social media extensively in her job search, including studying law offices’ blog comments and retweets. Carmon also used LinkedIn to search for personal connections: “When an interviewer has a public LinkedIn profile, it can provide valuable information that you can use to help establish a connection during the interview. It’s helpful to know in advance if you and an interviewer went to the same college or share an interest in a particular practice area.”

Some of this advice may sound obvious, but it also addresses perennial complaints by employers about receiving overly general and uninformed cover letters, or networking requests indicating a lack of preparation.

Listen for what they’re not saying

If you are trying to listen to what a firm is saying on social media but hearing only crickets, you may have an opportunity right there: If you are interested in working for a firm or lawyer who has no social media presence, your own social media skills could be an asset to that employer.

Legal job applicants with a careful, skillful social media presence may distinguish themselves in the job hunt, as Happy Go Legal points out. New lawyers can contribute content as well as broader policies for maintaining an ethical, effective social media presence. “Lawyers unfamiliar with the tools should enlist new associates fresh out of law school to provide practical tutorials—they’ve always swum in this sea, and naturally have a different mindset,” writes Jared Correia in the ABA’s Law Practice magazine.

Carefully craft your own social media presence

Whether you hope to help a lawyer with maintaining social media or simply want a job practicing law, it is important to have an effective social media presence in your own right. This means actually having a “presence.” At this point, we (the legal industry) should be past the era of trying to shut down all signs of social media life. For example with so many lawyers and law firms on LinkedIn, signing up is a “no brainer.” (This quote is from Kevin O’Keefe, one of the web’s biggest proponents of — well, just read his blog title: Real Lawyers Have Blogs.)

Using social media is valuable, but should be just one part of a mix of job-seeking efforts. Effectively listening to social media could lead to opportunities in real life — where a different kind of effective listening can make all the difference.

Not thinking like a lawyer

I went to meet the listening professors (Debra Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser) expecting deep theory. And they did give some, using words like “psychometric” and reflecting on the history of the listening field.

Debra Worthington, Jennifer Romig, and Margaret Fitch-Hauser
Debra Worthington, Jennifer Romig, and Margaret Fitch-Hauser

But their practical work in trial consulting was where our experiences and vocabularies overlapped a lot more, and where our most interesting conversations took place. Professor Worthington worked for 15 years in courtroom communications before she delved more deeply into listening theory and research. Professor Fitch-Hauser, now celebrating her retirement from Auburn, also works as a consultant and is the person who drew Worthington into the listening field. Their work together culminated in the listening textbook Listening: Processes, Functions and Competency.

The combination of their theoretical strength with their practical experience in the legal field made me doubly grateful for the opportunity to meet and talk with them over a long lunch in Auburn.

Worthington recounted her work with a difficult witness whose arrogance had damaged his case, both on the substance and his refusal to heed his lawyers’ guidance on demeanor. Worthington studied his testimony to understand his view of the case. She talked with him to find out what “really made him tick.” And then she used his underlying motivation to explain the case to him in a different way, and to motivate him to adopt good witness practices not because his lawyers told him too but for his own reasons as well.

As I thought about this anecdote, I became even more intrigued with the role trial consultants may play as listeners. For example, intuition may affect one’s listening. A lawyer’s intuition on dealing with a horrible witness may overlap — but not completely — with a trial consultant’s own intuition. And thus the lawyer and trial consultant would bring complementary methods to the table not just in generating themes and telling the story, but in listening to the people who in turn will be listened to by the jury.

Along these lines, Worthington shared that at an early juncture in her career, after she had already been working in legal communications, she considered whether to continue with graduate education or go to law school. Her mentor advised the former. “Debra,” he said, “your greatest strength is that you don’t think like a lawyer.”

Fitch-Hauser echoed the value of stepping outside the lawyer’s perspective: “It is crucial for attorneys not to expect the client to think as they think, and to make adjustments, and to not expect the jury to think as they think. They need to adjust their strategy and the way they tell their story to meet the jury’s needs.”

Both Worthington and Fitch-Hauser have been interested in questions about how listening intersects with personality, and how listening can be measured. One question I wanted to ask both of them relates to measurement and self-assessment: “How can an attorney know if he or she is a bad listener?”

Fitch-Hauser jumped to take this question:

There are some things anyone — attorney, or any other profession — can do, if they are willing to be objective. Ask yourself: When someone asks a question, do you always know the answer before the answer is given? If your own answer is yes, you may be listening to yourself rather than the other person. This is “selective listening,” which by one definition means “listening for the information that reinforces your own attitudes, ideas, and feelings.”

Worthington added the terms “assimiliation” and “constrasting” to the discussion at this point. Assimilation means taking in information that fits your pre-existing beliefs. Essentially, if you believe someone is similar to you, then you may perceive information from that person as closer to your existing beliefs than it really is. And the opposite is contrasting. If you go into a situation thinking someone has different beliefs, you may tend to perceive that person’s information as more different from your own beliefs than it really is. (Assimilation and contrasting seem generally related to the cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias. Some general thoughts on listening and various cognitive biases including confirmation bias have been explored on Listen Like a Lawyer here and here and here.)

Fitch-Hauser embodies thoughtful listening in her own conversational style, and reinforced that with some advice: “Don’t be afraid to use silence.” Sometimes clients come to lawyers with a “story” that may or may not match the facts. By talking with them and learning how they feel about the case, and at times remaining silent, an attorney can find out more about the real story behind what the client presents as the “official story.”

Worthington and Fitch-Hauser also touched on the power of nonverbal communication as an aspect of listening. “Look at the client as the client is talking,” Fitch-Hauser advised. “You can hear the pause and see them glance away. And then you can say, ‘It seems like there’s something else you want to add.'”

Ultimately, being a bad listener is somewhat part of the human condition, Worthington said. We all have moments of effective and ineffective listening. Lawyers, and anyone else who cares about communication, can seek an honest self-assessment of when they listen well and not so well. By keeping a communications journal, lawyers can start to recognize the situations when their listening is strong and weak. Reinforcing a theme from their textbook, Worthington noted that the answer to good listening versus bad often lies in the motivation to listen. “Motivation is finding some reason inside ourselves to expend the energy and get in there and listen.”

Fitch-Hauser sharpened the edge a bit: “Pretending to listen isn’t listening. Many people go through the motions. They put on the face, they lean forward, they nod, and they turn on a light. But they truly need to be home.”

Listening to the listening professors

This week I am excited for the opportunity to meet with two big names in the listening field, Debra L. Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser. They are communication professors at Auburn University and, among many other papers, are co-authors of a 2012 textbook, Listening: Processes, Functions, and Competency.

0132288540Professor Worthington has studied persuasion and juror decision-making and, more broadly, the effects of different listening styles. One of her papers addresses whether verbal aggression corresponds with any particular listening style. Not surprisingly. verbal aggression is inversely correlated with a people-focused listening style. But it’s not strongly correlated with the other classic listening styles:

  • action listening (tendency to focus on errors and inconsistencies in a message, and how it relates to a task)
  • content listening (tendency to focus on claims and support)
  • time listening (tendency to focus on how much time a communication event takes, and to prefer hurried interactions)

(These listening styles were first identified by listening scholars Kittie Watson, Larry Barker, and James Weaver and have been explored in a variety of papers. How lawyers may use these different listening styles is an interesting topic for future blog posts.)

Professor Fitch-Hauser studies listening fidelity and other measures of listening. Listening fidelity is a useful concept for any professional: when a listener listens to a speaker/source, how similar are their perceptions of the “communication event” they both experienced? Listening fidelity means their perceptions are more congruent. Her work also has touched on listening styles and personality, such as her paper with Stephanie Lee Sargent and James B. Weaver III on “A Listening Styles Profile of the Type A Personality.”

In their textbook, Worthington and Fitch-Hauser survey the listening literature and acknowledge the difficulties of studying listening. It is so difficult to study because it is inherently a “hypothetical construct, something you know exists but you can’t physically see.” Models of listening provide insight into what is really happening in this hypothetical construct. Thus listening models help with identifying where listening success and failure may occur.

The Worthington Fitch-Hauser model of listening is “MATERRS”:

  • Mental stimulus – intentionally attending to a noise or stimulus
  • Awareness – beginning the mental sorting process, which can be adversely impacted by a high cognitive load such as multitasking
  • Translation – processing the message rationally, emotionally, or both
  • Evaluation – using existing frameworks for understanding to connect the message to one’s existing knowledge
  • Recall – storing the message in working memory and possibly long-term memory as well
  • Response – deciding how to respond
  • Staying connected & motivated – building relationships, evaluating and perhaps changing one’s own frameworks for understanding future listening events, maintaining motivation to listen, and challenging one’s own personal biases

The last aspect of the WFH listening model — staying connected and motivated — was particularly interesting to me. It represents listening as not just a one-time event but an overall life competency. That’s just one of many reasons I am excited to meet and learn from Professors Worthington and Fitch-Hauser.




Listening, legal writing, and legal reading: there’s an app for that

One theme of this blog tilts toward the Luddite: let’s put down our phones, look into one another’s eyes, and really listen, and listen some more. But another theme is to stop worrying and learn to love the technology/internet/digital life etc. Want to be a great listener and a great lawyer? There’s an app for that.

Along those lines, there really is an app that can help listening play a valuable role in the writing and revision process (legal writing or any other kind of writing). Voice Dream Reader is an iPhone/iPad text-to-speech app ($9.99).

IMG_0202Voice Dream Reader can read word-processing documents, PDFs, webpages, certain kinds of digital books, and other types of documents. It integrates seamlessly with many other apps (I used it with Dropbox). Here’s a simple screen shot of some clipped text; visit the App Store to see more examples of what it can do: The default voice that comes with Voice Dream Reader is a little bit computer-ish. Buying a premium voice for $5 or $10 may make this work better for you. I tested out some voices and found that “Salli” was the most listenable for me personally.

Interacting with the app suggested several possibilities for using text-to-speech in legal writing, mainly engaging with your own written work for revising, editing, and proofreading. Text-to-speech could also be valuable for listening to particularly important texts (such as critical research sources). I used Voice Dream Reader to listen to various passages of legal writing and an article about listening and reading. Here are some thoughts on how this app (or other text-to-speech apps) could help with editing and with reading.

Listen to your own writing for flow and proofreading

Most obviously, you could use something like Voice Dream Reader to listen to your own writing. Open a document in Voice Dream Reader and listen to it. They say (and by “they say,” I mean everybody says) editing is about “getting distance from your work.” Listening to your own writing as read by a robot voice is one way to get some distance.

One feature of Voice Dream Reader that fascinated me was its ability to highlight each line and each word as it reads. Speech is slower than thought, and that’s one reason listening is such a challenge. By highlighting the line in yellow and the word inside a red box as it reads, Voice Dream Reader’s multiple inputs help to close that “thought-speech differential” and focus attention on the text. If the sentences are hard to listen to because they are convoluted, too long, or constructed in a confusing way, they probably aren’t readable either. Readability and listenability are closely related, although formulas that quantify readability and listenability may not be identical.* Whether listenability is precisely the same thing as readability need not be resolved by a writer with a pragmatic interest in editing.

To focus on the flow of ideas and connections of sentences, you could turn off the highlighting feature so you don’t see each word highlighted. Listen to the draft in a sort of auditory, storytelling mode. Stop the process when you feel a gap in the story; work on the problem, re-load the new text into Voice Dream (which doesn’t take long) and then resume the listening.

For proofreading, it might be desirable to use the app’s most robotic, computer-sounding voice. The goal is to use technology to get that distance from the draft; a robotic voice can help override the brilliant, friendly internal voice you may hear when editing your own work. (This is the voice that conveniently “fixes” errors as you go, thus compromising the editing process.) Reduce the rate of speech so . . . that . . . the . . . words . . . unroll . . . slowly. Turn on the line and word highlighting so that each word gets its own spotlight as you go.

Listening to a draft probably isn’t great for very large-scale revision questions. And it seems stronger for editing what is on the page rather than what isn’t. Still, it could have collateral benefits in these areas as well, prompting questions about organization and missing content. Listening to a draft is an investment of time (22:07 for a six-page double-spaced memo), but one that could be both interesting and beneficial.

Listen to the important legal authorities

Listening to a legal authority is another investment of time: 7:03 for the text of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; 36:14 just for the majority opinion in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980). But if a legal source is very, very important, it could be well worth the time to listen to the entire thing. You would know the document more thoroughly than if you simply read it silently and highlighted it. You could stop the reading and take notes. You could really hear language that was important or vivid and would therefore make a great quote in a piece of writing about that source.

This may be wishful thinking, but perhaps listening to a legal source could help with that elusive goal of “hearing what they’re not saying.” Expert legal readers can do this; law students learning to read cases are advised to notice what the court did not say or hold. (Linda Edwards’ Legal Writing: Process, Analysis, and Organization is one such text with this advice.)

By listening to a text, which is slower than reading, you have more time to run alternate scenarios of how the text might have been worded. Apart from using any app, reading the authority out loud in your own voice could be beneficial in related ways (maybe even more beneficial). Yet it also might be difficult to persevere through an entire legal document.

Voice Dream Reader could help with the necessary perseverance. It shows you the total reading time and you can see a circle progress through a timeline, orienting you to how much longer there is to go. This timeline could be another useful piece of information for revision purposes as well: if the text seems to drag and make unnecessary points, perhaps it could and should be shortened.

Caveats and conclusion

As mentioned above, here are the features I found most useful in Voice Dream Reader:

  •  the ability to highlight text, or turn off highlighting
  • control over the rate of speech
  • premium voices
  • integration with Dropbox

A few critiques and caveats: Trying to move back and forth in a document was awkward and difficult for me. I did figure out how to bookmark certain moments and navigate among them, which was helpful. One of the sources I read was a PDF with footnotes. Voice Dream Reader did not know how to handle footnotes other than to plow through them in linear fashion. When it came to the bottom of the main text on a page, it then went immediately into the footnotes below.

This linear reading of text and footnotes was both awkward and helpful in a strange way. It was awkward because citations aren’t sentences and they sound just plain ugly. But listening to the footnotes was actually kind of helpful as well because it gave me a moment to listen less attentively and jot some notes about the main text. I didn’t totally tune out from the footnotes; the reading was slow enough that I could make notes on interesting sources to investigate later.

Another caveat: I am positive there are many other apps and web apps and software programs with similar functionality. I did not do a comprehensive search into alternative text-to-speech platforms. (There is a free version of Voice Dream Reader called Voice Dream Reader Lite. Apparently it reads in 300-word segments, after which you have to press “play” again to continue. I did not try out the lite version.) I did find this helpful in-depth review of Voice Dream Reader.

Using Voice Dream Reader revealed some interesting possibilities for bringing speech and listening into the analysis and writing process. If you have used a text-to-speech app such as Voice Dream Reader for your own listening, reading, and writing — especially in a law-related context — please share thoughts in the comments.

*Sidebar if you’re interested: Patrick Ellis — a lawyer and scholar with some serious coding skills — measured the “simplicity” of an oral argument by Supreme Court advocate and former Solicitor General Paul Clement by converting the recording to text and quantifying its readability. But some listening scholarship suggests that listenability and readability are not as closely related as one might think because nonverbal cues, attitudes, and presentation issues affect listenability in a way that readability formulas don’t take into account. See Glenn, Emmert, and Emmert, A Scale for Measuring Listenability: The Factors that Determine Listening Ease and Difficulty, 9 Int’l J. Listening 44 (1995) (“too many variables intervene that prevent unqualified use of reading measurements to test and evaluate the listenability of oral texts”).