Month: November 2014

Legal communicationPeople skills

Holiday listening

In the holiday season, listening to family and friends can be a perfect gift. It doesn’t cost money and it’s deeply meaningful for the recipient. For the giver, sitting down with a cup of coffee and a friend can be a respite from the hectic, distracted, too-many-things-to-do feeling that ushers in the season.

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Flickr/Rhett Sutphin

But making the listening happen, which requires cutting through that hecticness and the digital clutter of life (even on Thanksgiving), is hard. For lawyers, one somewhat natural method to help ourselves give the gift of listening is by asking questions. For that, I recommend the TED website’s list of “10 Questions to Ask Your Family Around the Table.” 

Questions like “What was the hardest moment of your life?” are pretty big questions. And that actually makes them really good for lawyers, almost 60 percent of whom are introverts. Writing about lawyer introverts in The Legal Balance, Beth Buelow defined an introvert as “a person who gains energy from solitude and drains energy during social interaction.” Introverts tend to enjoy deeper one-on-one conversations (as opposed to superficial group chit-chat) which is why TED’s 10 Questions are so helpful. In her article on lawyer-introverts, Buelow talked about networking but might as well have been describing holiday conversations with family:

[S]how up with your natural curiosity, sense of humor and ability to listen. We all want to be seen and heard, and you’re giving a tremendous gift to a prospect or colleague [LLL: or relative or friend] when you really listen and give her your undivided attention.

Happy holidays to Listen Like a Lawyer’s readers. May each of you give and receive the gift of listening this holiday season.

AdvocacyCollaborationLaw practiceLitigationTrial advocacy

Second-chair listening

The role of a good second-chair lawyer at trial is strategically crucial. Yet the second chair’s contribution can be difficult to see, compared with that of the lead lawyer starring in the show. Two major components of the second chair’s contribution are preparation (before trial) and listening (at trial). The preparation gives the second chair something to contribute, and the listening is what allows the second chair to make that contribution at the right time.

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Courtesy Flickr/Independent Man

I wanted to write about second chairing partly based on my own experience (years ago) as a second chair at depositions, arbitrations, and trial. Sometimes I knew I was being helpful, such as by pointing out some questions the lead attorney didn’t quite get to. Other times I worried that I was being annoying or distracting and wasn’t sure how to adjust the filter on how much to share. It was crucial to listen not only to the information being revealed through the proceeding itself, but also to the subtle cues of the first chair on the best and worst times to speak up.

Various ABA publications have some good advice for second chairs such as “How to Shine as a Second Chair” by Myra Mormile and “Your First Trial: Understanding the Second-Chair Role” by Michael R. Carey. A few major themes of listening are woven throughout. One is active listening. The other is listening for what’s not there (perhaps the hardest kind of listening, cognitively). Another important aspect of the second chair’s role is that even though it’s not a starring role, the second chair is being observed as well. The second chair’s demeanor in the act of listening and assisting has to be controlled just as much as the lead lawyer’s.

Virtually every piece of advice on second chairing will talk about active listening. Mormile cautioned second chairs going to trial for the first time every to avoid “deer in headlights” syndrome. She’s not addressing active listening in the traditional sense of listening, rephrasing the statement back to the speaker, and asking him or her to go on. She’s talking about the activity that should come about as a result of listening:

Don’t react; anticipate. If the first chair turns to you more than you turn to him or her, you have failed as a second chair. Avoid this by anticipating where your first chair, and the case, is headed. Listen to your first chair, the opposing party, and the fact-finder. If opposing counsel directs the witness to an exhibit or references a specific case, you should pull it on your own before your first chair asks for it.

This idea that the second chair is always active also resonated with Carey:

[W]hen your first chair crosses that expert, you get to listen and take notes. But second chair is not a casual observer role–you are actively listening and evaluating the evidence for substance and delivery. Tell your first chair about any problems before it is too late. If you cannot successfully fulfill this role, you might as well be sitting in the gallery.

Listening for what is not said, what’s left out, what’s elided — that’s one of the hardest parts of listening, at trial or otherwise. The reason is what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls the availability bias. Our brains are biased towards information that is present in the affirmative sense. Yet to be a good second chair, a lawyer must try to overcome this bias and listen for missing pieces. As Mormile points out, “When your witness leaves out a point in his or her testimony, bring it to your first chair’s attention.” How does one overcome the availability bias to do this? It’s difficult, but checklists may help trigger your brain to search for gaps, a suggestion that certainly resonates with best practices for trial prep. (Just Google “trial preparation checklist.” Here’s one example of too many to count.)

Beyond listening for specific information, problems, and gaps, the second chair’s listening role is also atmospheric. The second chair should have some extra cognitive bandwidth (that the lead lawyer doesn’t, given the demands of that role) to monitor the entire scene, as Michael Carey points out:

You have the luxury of looking around the room to see who might be falling asleep, who is aghast, who is rolling their eyes, or who is nodding along with your first chair’s line of questining. First chair relies on you to provide a comprehensive evaluation of how the jury and the judge are responding to the evidence.

And your listening is itself being observed, as Carey further points out: “[R]emember that you are being watched by the jury. If you look like you are trying to spy on opposing counsel, the jurors will lose trust in you.” Thus, non-distracting, focused, respectful body language is crucial. Here are a good quick primer on effective body language in court and some videos from litigation consulting firm A2L.

As noted above and in earlier posts on this blog, I’m a strong proponent of checklists. The parent of the  checklists-in-the-professions movement is Dr. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Gawande recommends that process-based checklists should include some sort of post-performance or “after action” review. For second chairs, this is crucial advice for many reasons, not least of which is that presumably most second chairs want to move up to first chair at some point. Second chairs can seek an informal “after action” by asking their first chairs, “How did I do?” Listening is very difficult to evaluate  in part because the act of listening is itself difficult to observe. But a first-chair lawyer who just finished relying on a second chair to perform a listening role may be able to give better feedback because of the intensity of that experience.

Law practiceLegal communication

The audience for listening?

Knowing your audience is key to any effective blog project. So who actually is the audience for Listen Like a Lawyer? Who cares — I mean who actually does care — about listening enough to read this blog and share posts from time to time?

At the outset, Listen Like a Lawyer’s primary audience was practicing lawyers and legal professionals, kind of like a CLE in blog format. There is such thing as a listening CLE as well as many CLEs on communication with significant listening components. Compared with several hours of listening training that detract from billable or other core work, the benefit of the blog is regular reminders and varied content in small segments over time. As a proponent of listening, of course I would recommend both listening CLEs and  attention to small snippets of information spread out over time such as via this blog.

To reach lawyers, the blog has thus far tried to cover topics of general interest from marketing to litigation and mediation (with gratitude to guest Greg Parent) to management issues involving feedback and team dynamics. Some lawyers are highly engaged with listening in a particular context, such as listening to children (with gratitude to Karen Worthington for a wonderful guest post).

But this blog does not seek only to preach to the converted, i.e. great listeners who are engaged with listening concepts. My background is legal writing, and sometimes I get the feeling that many of the wonderful books and blogs on legal writing are devoured solely by lawyers who already care deeply about legal writing and are fantastic at it. Bryan Garner has written about the Dunning-Kruger effect as applied to legal writing: bad legal writers cannot even realize they are bad. We could debate how much Dunning-Kruger really applies to legal writers, but it most certainly does apply to listening. (Expect more elaboration in a future dedicated post.) Efforts to break through the unwarranted illusion of listening competence take a variety of forms.

One strategy is guilt and implied threat. Perhaps a lawyer is not getting good evaluations on soft skills due to listening problems. Perhaps a lawyer feels a lack of connection with clients and potential clients and wants to try some things to do better.

A rhetorical tactic for reaching less-engaged potential blog readers is through the Upworthy-style heading. I haven’t written that many headlines such as “10 Ways Your Law Career Is Being Sabotaged By Bad Listening!” or “The Secret Ingredient to Getting Clients to Love You in 60 Seconds.” But the blog has published some serious posts directly focused on listening problems such as mismatches in team communication styles, the crossover of bad listening into personal life, and issues with mobile devices and other forms of distractions. A few humorous posts have experimented with mock scare-tactics such as “Four Scary Kinds of Listeners” (a Halloween special) and “A High Intensity Listening Workout” — basically, Tabata for listening. Other forms of humor include Tami Lefko’s guest post with great TV clips on active-listening, and a compilation of listening advice for Valentine’s Day.

No lawyer has ever openly denied to me that listening is important, but there are often discernible traces of a passive, unengaged attitude. Most of all I think it comes from a fixed mindset — the belief you’re either a good listener or not, and probably can’t do much to change that fixed quality. This blog is really trying to break through that fixed mindset about listening and promote a growth mindset instead. Clearly we need more posts directly on the growth mindset. (Carol Dweck is the guru of this field and her book Mindset is a highly recommended read.) The growth mindset is the way out of guilt and threat as the motivation for learning.

In the spirit of growth, the blog has also sought to teach some subtle information that lawyers may not have encountered explicitly before such as the power of nonverbal communication and discourse markers in speech. Some of the posts have delved into topics that perhaps are more suitable for trial consultants, such as this early series on cognitive biases. I don’t think the blog has done enough to speak to legal professionals who work in teams with lawyers, and that is a gap I hope to remedy in the future.

Beyond lawyers and legal professionals, the blog’s other main intended audiences are law professors and law students. I’m still so grateful to Neil Hamilton for his in-depth law review article on listening, which confirmed for me that this is an important conversation to have in the legal-education community. This blog has therefore covered the classroom and other aspects of teaching. For law students, the blog has talked about listening in the classroom and in experiential situations. Georgia State’s Kendall Kerew contributed a wonderful guest post on listening skills in externships. You can expect additional future posts on intriguing ways to teach listening in law school.

So, more than a year later, how has everything turned out? Did these efforts to reach the various components of the blog’s intended audience actually work?

The blog has reached its core audiences. Law professors have been the most ready audience and the most positive in sharing and helping. Thank you to all friends and colleagues who have been so encouraging! I am also grateful to the Academic Support blog and many professors such as Susan Landrum and Gabrielle Goodwin who have shared posts with J.D. and L.L.M. students. Contributing to a conversation on educating future lawyers as good listeners helps the blog indirectly achieve its goal of encouraging better listening in the legal workplace among lawyers, clients, and judges.

One way I know the blog has been at least somewhat successful in reaching lawyers and legal professionals is that they have found this blog through interesting and relevant search terms. They have used social media to share various posts as well. On a personal note, many have been willing to talk with me and share their thoughts. I was grateful for the opportunity to guest-blog about listening at Legal Productivity. The audience of practicing lawyers and legal professionals is the blog’s most important target, and will be a more direct focus of blog content moving forward.

A very small, surprising audience has been clients affected by their lawyers. One search query that led someone to this blog was, “Do I have to listen to my lawyer?” These search queries may, ironically, lead the searcher to posts about lawyers’ ethical duties to listen (and not listen) to their clients.

A larger and more surprising audience has been undergrads or graduate students, most of them apparently working on listening-related term papers. The blog has been found by a lot of search terms for the HURIER model of listening and the Worthington-Fitch Hauser model of listening. Although it was not the blog’s intent to be a source for college term-papers, such readers are welcome and in fact should know that listening is crucial in the law-school classroom and interactions with judges and clients. In other words, effective listening yields a competitive advantage in law school and lawyering. That was a central theme of the blog at its outset and remains so today.

Thanks to all who have read Listen Like a Lawyer in its first year. Please keep the blog in your Twitter feeds, your Facebook status updates, and your RSS subscriptions. Also please feel free to send ideas for future posts. Writing this retrospective inspired a number of ideas and I look forward to sharing them.