Teaching Success > Analyzing Failure

Why blog about listening? It drew me in because it’s different than legal writing—which I honestly love, and love to teach, but sometimes tire of, with its skirmishes in broader linguistic debates about two spaces after a period, commas outside quotation marks, and the indefinite singular pronoun, as well as the temptation to go negative.

Courtesy Flickr/Martin Fisch/CC BY-SA 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/Martin Fisch/CC BY-SA 2.0

Listening is among the softest of the soft skills, so soft it’s hard to perceive and even harder to measure. It’s not talked about as much as writing or speaking—or even the other “receptive” communication channel, reading—but I believe it has a huge impact on every aspect of law students’ and lawyers’ effectiveness, both real and perceived. If a law student gets every relevant fact from an externship client including important gaps in the client’s knowledge and then produces excellent notes for the supervising attorney, but the client does not feel heard, is that a successful interaction? How can law students and lawyers enhance their listening skills?

I hoped to mainly focus the blog on constructive ideas, as opposed to the “what not to do” method so prevalent in some conversations about legal writing. Yet soon as I launched the blog, the most common reaction was to parade out the listening failures:

“Your blog is called Listen Like a Lawyer? Oh, so you mean poorly and with preconceived ideas?”

Thus the temptation. It can be fun to write about bad examples of anything, whether listening or writing or any other skill. I had a little too much fun writing a Halloween post about “scary” listening here. And here’s a more serious post focusing on terrible listening. The attraction—and impact—of talking about failure is based on a larger disturbing reality:

[N]egative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impacts than positive ones.

This is from an article in the Harvard Business Review explaining Roy Baumeister’s paper “Bad Is Stronger than Good.”

Prevention is better than failure

The temptation to talk about any skill in terms of failure came immediately to mind when I read Ken Grady’s latest post at the Seyfarth Shaw Lean Consulting blog SeytLines, “On Teaching Lawyers to Succeed Rather than Fail.” His post focuses on critiquing the case method of law school, in which almost every fact pattern by definition represents a failure of the parties and lawyers to find a mutually beneficial solution and settle the case.

His critique is not unreasonable: why is that a good way to teach lawyers to solve problems? Actually Grady is less interested even in solving problems than in anticipating and preventing them. And he doesn’t think the case method is very good at this at all:

“[T]aken to an extreme and when used as the primary method of teaching students, [the case method] becomes a vicious circle keeping us trapped in a cycle of failure.”

Re-thinking the model to teach law students how to proactively work with clients to prevent legal problems turns out to be very difficult. Prevention is a lot harder to see than failure:

“Much of the best lawyering ever done was not recorded in case books or articles. It went unrecorded because that work prevented failure from happening. The lawyers who provided those services kept their clients out of trouble, kept costs down, and avoided burdens on society.”

Role-playing real situations is one way to get at preventative lawyering, as in the following example from Grady:

“A general counsel is faced with a new business model. She investigates the obvious legal risks of the model and does not find anything at odds with existing law. As far as she can tell the proposed business model is perfectly legal. But still, something does not seem right to her. She pushes further into the model. As she studies it, she realizes how it may conflict with evolving concepts in the law and societal trends. Today the model is perfectly legal, but in three to five years, it most likely will be problematic. Our general counsel could do nothing and leave any problem to the future. She could follow the maxim of make money today and let tomorrow bring whatever it may. Or, she could look for something to mitigate the risk.”

Problem-solving and leadership

Grady’s post “On Teaching Lawyers to Succeed Rather than Fail” reminds me a lot of Emory Law Professor Dorothy Brown’s recent article Law School Without Borders (PDF). In the article, she outlines an alternative approach to teaching law. She gives a case study problem solving and problem prevention for a hypothetical client who happens to be a “nationally known Southern-style celebrity chef” sued for race and sex discrimination. In the article, Brown walks through the possibilities for achieving success through proactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative lawyering. More broadly, she suggests what law schools can and should do to broaden their focus:

“A law school that incorporates more than just teaching students how to think like lawyers, but how to also solve problems and take a leadership role will graduate students better equipped to add value to their firms and clients on the first day. Emotional intelligence should not be underestimated. By emotional intelligence, I mean empathy, exercising good judgment, maturity, wisdom, common sense, and last, but not least, the ability to have difficult conversations successfully.”

Hear, Hear! to the idea of teaching leadership, emotional intelligence, and difficult conversations. The “law school without borders” Professor Brown describes is consistent with Ken Grady’s interest in teaching problem prevention through anticipatory lawyering. Their ideas both fit within and challenge the ongoing conversation about experiential learning in legal education, such as here.

Better listening by analyzing listening successes

This is a huge topic, but what we can do here is to bring the focus back to listening. From time to time, we can turn away from “10 Ways to Be Awful at Listening.” We can instead talk about “10 Ways Great Listening Helped Lawyers Serve Their Clients By Understanding and Avoiding Potential Disputes.” Here are some questions:

  • How have you seen lawyers use listening to successfully prevent and solve problems?
  • What did they do, specifically, that showed their listening?
  • How can proactive, preventative, powerful listening be a tool for lawyering success?
  • What are some ways to teach that kind of listening?

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