Steal their listening

Keith Lee’s book The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice (ABA 2013) is a bracing, honest, challenging compendium of advice for new lawyers. I would strongly recommend it to upper-level law students and new lawyers. (See also his blog, Associate’s Mind, as well as his columns in Above the Law.) One chapter in Keith’s book that caught my eye is “On the Importance of Stealing.”

In addressing new lawyers, Keith advises the following:

“[S]tealing is an essential skill for you to develop.”

Not for larceny, of course, he says, but “within the framework of learning and growth.” The objects of this stealing are varied: “other lawyers, CLEs, books, anything really.” New lawyers should “steal their pattern of success.”

This is great advice. But it’s easier in some areas than others. We can look at a great legal brief and break down how each section and each sentence works. We can watch a great advocate and recognize skillful pauses and variations in tone. We can admire a senior lawyer who knows literally every statute and case in a given area of expertise and can assemble and reassemble them instantly in response to any factual question.

What about listening?

Listening is hard to observe and very hard to measure. Speaking and writing are productive – i.e. observable – communication skills. Listening is one of the two receptive communication skills, along with reading. “Listening is a hypothetical construct, something you know exists but you can’t physically see. You can see only the behavioral indicators supporting its existence.” This is from Debra L. Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser’s textbook on listening.

So how do you steal from a hypothetical construct?

The behavioral indicators are a place to start.

This is a complex process: you’re observing affirmative actions such as making eye contact, using appropriate body language, asking questions, and providing “discourse markers” such as “um-hm” that encourage conversation. But you’re also observing what the listener doesn’t do: noticeably look away, check a smartphone, interrupt. Noticing what isn’t there is very, very difficult. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Daniel Kahneman tells us, “WYSIATI”: What you see is all there is.

The ease of perceiving what is there may partly explain why active listening is such a popular listening concept. It has a set of specific repeatable, measurable behaviors that go with it, such as repeating what the speaker has said. If you watch a skilled active listener, you can steal the method. But note how this is not really stealing the person’s listening skills. It’s stealing the productive act of speaking in a certain way, by repeating what the listener just heard.

The most important components of listening are hidden: being aware of and receiving the information, placing it into context with one’s previous knowledge, evaluating and (perhaps) remembering the information, and responding. These elements of listening are drawn again from Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model of listening.

It’s hard to steal someone’s level of awareness. Again here, specific affirmative behaviors may be the only practical proxy. Making eye contact is a sign of awareness, for example. The educational-reform model KIPP teaches children a set of specific classroom behaviors that include “sit up,” “track the speaker,” and “nod your head.”  Body language can shape not only communication behaviors but actual brain chemistry, as Amy Cuddy famously described in her TED Talk and other work on “power posing.” 

The “s” in the MATERRS listening model stands for “stay connected and motivated.” To be a good listener, you have to want to listen.

But how can a person “steal” someone’s else’s motivation? Maybe the answer is an instrumental one: you can observe what their good listening does for them. Specifically, you can observe how you feel when you interact with a skilled listener.

In The Marble and the Sculptor, Keith Lee emphasizes communication — actually over-communication — with clients. This means keeping the client informed, of course. It also means taking time to get to know the client: “Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

This is one of Keith’s many kernels of advice to consider stealing. (Actually he got it from and attributes it to Dan Hull of What About Clients.) Before going on an outing to spend the afternoon at the client’s site, it’s a good idea to prepare. Study up on the client, of course. But also, consider inviting a great lawyer to lunch — someone whose client development and communication skills you know to be first rate.

And then steal their listening.


Note: I was grateful to meet Keith in person as he spoke to the legal blogging class I am co-teaching at Emory Law School. His advice on lawyering and legal blogging is first-rate (obviously!) and was received with great enthusiasm by the students. After seeing him interact with students, I can say Keith is not only a great speaker but also an excellent listener.

6 thoughts on “Steal their listening

  1. Jennifer
    I applaud the notion of ‘stealing’ the “patterns of success” whether they arise from ‘smart’ books or from senior lawyer — preferably an admired mentor. With more and more young lawyers starting out on their own — solos not by choice but by circumstance, this advice is fundamental. As I have told some of these new lawyers, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” which is really scary about going out on your own without a practical framework and on-the-job experiential “learning and growth.” Beyond merely taking a senior lawyer to lunch — ideally, shadowing an experienced lawyer for a day or two and watching and listening to how they manage office, court and client interactions is an even better way to pick up those success patterns.

  2. Three more cheers…from the cheap seats…

    Don’t let Scott ruffle or scruff. He likes to push but likes pushback on the trail even more. There is no ill will in the man just a few D-9 bulldozers, a loader or two, and that tracked excavator he is pretty damned good with.

    If you can square him up and excavate a bit you can find his heels or at least his balance point. It comes with a few tons of integrity although not always polished and proper. The rest is pretty enjoyable and more often than not worthy of some thought.

    I have been one of Scott’s (the esteemed one) resident trolls for a few years. Not necessarily to my credit but without doubt I have taken more than given and I am rarely worthy of his coattails.

    He does bring insight to your guild and just a little bit more daily for those like myself’ sitting in the “cheap seats”.

    It has been a pleasure to cut your blawg trail. If you don’t mind I will turn and ride back over your archives for a bit then catch-up with you on the trail.

    Don’t let anyone fuck with you blawg vision. It is a worthy one! Bring the tools (new, old, stolen, invented or otherwise) an the “artists” will sort themselves out.

    • Thanks for your encouragement here and elsewhere. This project is eclectic, partly because that’s the only way I know how to approach the topic. Also the audience is intended to be eclectic, including lawyers — senior and junior — as well as professors and law students. That means the blog may be a jack of all trades and master of none. But that never stopped anyone with a law degree, so onward is the only way to go . . . thanks again.
      P.S. I sat in the cheap seats at a Braves game last year and thought the view was actually the best in the house.

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