About a thousand law professors are gathering now at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Schools. The first session I attended this morning was Incorporating Teaching Professional Identity into the Legal Education Curriculum, with speakers from Mercer Law School and the University of North Dakota School of Law. Both schools offer innovative courses in building a professional identity as a lawyer.
The new program on professional identity at North Dakota emphasizes twelve core professional qualities, which I quote here from their handout:
- Adaptability/Deals with Unpredictability
- Confronts Mistakes
- Integrity Under Pressure
- Professional Objectivity/Sympathetic Detachment
I really love this list and wanted to focus the rest of this post on how listening relates to these core qualities. Interestingly, the list does not include anything about “communicates effectively.” I think the point is to talk about the essential character of the lawyer, which is separate and broader than the lawyer’s discrete skills like communicating effectively. The lawyer’s core qualities are broader and more significant than any one skill; they drive the lawyer’s individual actions and deployment of skills in many ways.
Here are my quick thoughts on highlights of the list in relation to listening.
Adaptability and Dealing with Unpredictability
To be able to adapt, the lawyer has to listen. This is easier at the beginning of a project, when the lawyer is beginning to create the narrative of the case or the strategic approach. It’s harder when the client and/or lawyer already have a narrative or strategy in mind. The best lawyers can hear explicit or implicit dissonance with their chosen narrative, and then assess the risk to that narrative.
Listening also helps with unpredictability, I think in the sense of asking questions and listening to the answer. Open-ended questions may tease out that unpredictability and let a lawyer prepare for it. Closed questions that lead the conversation in a certain way may mask unpredictable facts or preferences, setting up nasty surprises later.
Lawyers have to deal with very difficult facts sometimes. The setting may be a courtroom where a witness recounts painful testimony or a law office where a client shares an uncomfortable truth or a mediation room where harsh words are exchanged or an icy test of wills becomes apparent. The lawyer has to have courage to face these situations and listen with professional body language and a problem-solving demeanor, even if that lawyer’s personal preference would be to go anywhere else in the world.
To do a thorough job, the lawyer has to set up sufficient time for fact-investigation including, possibly, interviews. And the lawyer should use judgment to decide how to go about collecting facts, whether by e-mail or phone or face-to-face meetings.
Listening like a vacuum cleaner sucking up information is not, by itself, effective listening. The listener may be primarily interested in fact investigation and analysis, but listening with empathy will almost always be more professional (as a value) as well as more effective (as a skill).
Giving time to listen is a form of generosity. Giving undivided attention during that time is more difficult and therefore more generous.
Effective listening is all of these things. We’ve all witnessed situations with a bad listener who interrupts to ensure everyone gets the benefit of his or her “wisdom.” Interrupting is a little more complicated than that, though, because some forms of interruption show engagement with the conversation. Effective listening, like professional identity more broadly as discussed in this session, is complex and holistic and cannot be wholly addressed by a set of steps or distinct, invariable behavior rules.
At times, listening is hard. That’s partly because people speak more slowly than our brains want to process information. (A whole separate blog post or posts will cover this idea later. It’s a huge component of why really effective listening can be so hard.) Effective listeners may need to show explicit signs of patience, such as body language and encouraging responses. Effective listeners may also need to struggle with their own intrinsic impatience due to the differential between how fast they hear the information and how fast they are capable of processing information.
Many people have mentioned to me that the best listeners are able to hear what’s not said. That’s partly an intellectual skill. But perseverance helps–asking questions in different ways, listening with discernment to how a person says something, and defining the gap. That’s just one specific point where perseverance and listening intersect. Being able to withstand a 4-hour conference call is another form of perseverance.
Professional Objectivity and Sympathetic Detachment
Effective listening means limiting the influence of one’s preferences and biases. It means being empathetic while not becoming so wrapped up in the narrative that one’s objectivity is compromised. The lawyer’s role is a complex and difficult one, and the seeming paradox of “sympathetic detachment” is just one illustration of the fine line lawyers must walk.
Please feel free to use the comments for sharing more thoughts on listening and how it relates to the core qualities of lawyering.
Thanks again to Professors Patti Alleva and Michael McGinniss of the University of North Dakota and Professors Tim Floyd and Patrick Longan, and Dean Daisy Hurst Floyd of Mercer. I probably won’t be able to blog in this depth again during the conference but will try to at least tweet further thoughts of interest on listening. Listen Like a Lawyer’s Twitter feed can be seen here on the blog on the right-hand panel.