Listening to internal and external clients

A friend recently sent me a nice compliment about the blog. She works in sales and marketing (not within the legal industry) and said she’s finding the listening skills discussed here very useful for communicating with both “internal and external customers.”

Courtesy Flickr/Elliott Brown
Courtesy Flickr/Elliott Brown

The focus on “internal and external customers” (or clients) caught my particular attention. Of course lawyers are going to want to listen intently to their external clients. One way to keep a client is to listen; conversely, a great way to lose a client — especially a senior business executive — is not to listen, such as by checking your smart phone during a meeting.

For lawyers, the idea of internal clients may be more subtle but still should be a given, especially for in-house lawyers and anyone who works in a place where client-service teams are chosen partly based on who the senior team leaders want to work with. Here’s a good post by Timothy Corcoran on better understanding your internal client. And here’s a good post with advice to associates on impressing partners — such as by treating them as an internal client.

But is effective listening different for lawyers’ internal and external clients, or should it be? Apart from what listening practices are most effective, as a descriptive matter might lawyers subconsciously listen differently in internal and external situations?

Active listening provides a focal point for exploring this question. Active listening has been defined by law professor John Barkai as “the lawyer’s verbal response that reflects back to the client, in different words, what the client has just said.”

Barkai suggests that we can evaluate active listening on at least three metrics:

  • accuracy: did the lawyer understand the speaker’s informational content and emotions?
  • intensity: did the lawyer understand the intensity of the speaker’s emotions?
  • form: did the lawyer respond with clean, simple paraphrasing — or did the lawyer use what Barkai views as potentially patronizing and unhelpful introductory phrases such as “I understand” and “What I’m hearing you say is . . .”? 

So with these metrics in mind, we can reflect on whether lawyers listen with different degrees of accuracy, attunement, and form when they are dealing with external versus internal clients. Here are two brief hypothetical case studies:

Lawyer #1 believes in the importance of listening and attempts to be a particularly strong listener with external clients. He focuses on their information and their content, and he accurately perceives the strength of their feelings. But he wants to show them how carefully he listens, and thus habitually and intentionally uses phrases such as “I understand” and “As I see it.”  Sometimes these phrases lead clients to feel a bit patronized, and as a result they may hold back. 

Lawyer #2 is at a stage of her career where she wants to show her technical lawyering skills to senior lawyers. She listens with a strong focus on the information they are sharing, and she concisely reiterates information and tasks to ensure everyone is on the same page. She is not quite as accurate at judging the emotional state of senior lawyers. Sometimes Lawyer #2 asks task-related follow-up questions too quickly. Slowing down the conversation by reiterating general instructions could allow her to glean more global, contextual information about how the senior lawyer feels about the representation and wants to approach it.

Ultimately, whatever the context, effective listening demonstrates strength at each step of the listening process — roughly attention, perception, memory, understanding, analysis, and response. (This outline is drawn very generally from listening frameworks such as Brownell’s HURIER model and Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model.)

Also regardless of context, effective listeners are “uniform” in their ability to choose and tailor their approach for the particular situation. The best communicators will take the internal/external factor into account — of course. But that’s just one of many other factors such as the length of the relationship; the other person’s stress level; the complexity of the content; the time of day; and the other person’s preferred style of communication such as informal or formal, just to brainstorm a few.

In this sense listening is just like all the other communication tasks a lawyer performs: there is a very broad common framework for effectively performing each task, and the most effective listeners/speakers/writers tailor their approach within the framework to meet the needs of the client — whether internal or external.

*Thanks to Lou Spelios for comments on an earlier version of this post.

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