Law-school prep for listening skills?

‘Tis the season of advice for 0Ls, meaning those about to enter law school this fall. While reading Scott Turow’s One L and banking some “me” time are both great, 0Ls might want to think about their listening.

I once heard a law professor say that starting law school is like learning Chinese by being dropped from an airplane into a community where only Chinese is spoken. Law-school prep classes, boot camps, and online programs have sprung up to help students make the transition. Perhaps a law-school prep course is a little bit like reading a grammar guide and a few key survival-oriented sentences before the big drop.

Courtesy Flickr/Steven Depolo/CC by 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/Steven Depolo/CC by SA 2.0

But there are ways to prep for law school without paying a fee, such as “by visiting your local Barnes and Noble.” Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick and Getting to Maybe by Richard Fischl and Jeremy Paul are often recommended. These books are great, and as a legal-writing professor when I’m not blogging, I especially recommend Plain English for Lawyers. I would also add Barry Friedman and John Goldberg’s Open Book as a new and popular contender in the law-exam-prep market.

But the skills these books ultimately focus on—writing legal documents and exam questions—are partially the artifacts of earlier skills in reading and listening. What about targeted prep for these skills?

For reading, future law students may want to take a look at Ruth Ann McKinney’s Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert. I also like Wilson Huhn’s The Five Types of Legal Argument. It’s not about reading per se but about the major building blocks of legal opinions and legal reasoning generally.

For listening, I’m not aware of a specific book focusing on listening for pre-law students. (Hmmm….)

If there were such a book, what would it cover? Here’s a thought experiment on what pre-law students could do the summer before law school to enhance their listening:

  • Acclimate to the pace of a law school class.

Incoming law students could search for a few lectures on YouTube and sample what they really sound like and how they move. Socratic interchanges and professorial pauses may be new experiences. Class can move slowly or very, very fast.

Some students may want to work on smartphone etiquette and attentiveness so as to avoid distractions during class even when it seems to move slowly. This in turn is good practice for avoiding smartphone distractions during meetings and interviews with clients and others as a practicing lawyer. Even if a student loses no actual information by looking at a smartphone during class, that student may be sacrificing the speaker’s good impression.

  • Start to develop a note-taking method.

It is difficult to decide how to take notes in class before actually attending many—or any—real classes. But having a note-taking strategy in place before the first class should allow students to get more out of the first few classes and to adjust more quickly with experience. Lisa Needham published a post in the Lawyerist about the famous Cornell note-taking method, which she described as a way of “hacking chaos.” On a more specific note, I guest-blogged about one strategy,  #professorsays, at The Girl’s Guide to Law School.

  • Integrate reading and listening on a particular case.

This is somewhat idealistic, but the idea is as follows: the reading raises questions and makes the student curious to find out whether and how the professor answers those questions. Then the student listens effectively in class because of having context (from the reading’s facts) and being curious (from the student’s questions). And then the student’s engagement with the material in class means the student will have even better questions to formulate when doing the next set of readings in preparation for the next class.

One way to practice this integration of material without doing a prep class would be to use the power of YouTube: find a YouTube video discussing a particular case, then read the case before fully viewing the video. Or read a Supreme Court case and then listen to the oral argument audio on oyez.org. Listen for the concepts in the questions and answers that you remember in the opinion itself. I would suggest the audio arguments in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. as an entertaining and educational opportunity. (Here’s the Supreme Court’s written opinion.)

  • Prepare yourself to ask questions—good questions—when you are confused.

While listening and reading can be a virtuous cycle, most law students also have the experience of feeling really lost and confused at one point or another. Throughout the semester, and not just in the final push of studying for exams, students should monitor their own listening and thinking to recognize confusion setting in. Starting a conversation with the professor by asking good questions is one way to address a creeping sense of confusion. If asking a question after class is too crowded or just uncomfortable, go to the professor’s office hours or make an appointment.

Asking “good questions” is something great future lawyers learn as soon as possible. It’s not just “Help. I’m confused.” That’s fine for a trusted study group but not so helpful for interacting with a professor. To make a better impression as well as start a more helpful conversation, ask questions the explain what you know and don’t know. For example: “I think I’m confused. Here’s what I believe I know. Here’s what I think I heard you say. Where I’m not seeing the connection is why . . . ”

A law school prep class may give the opportunity to ask this kind of question. Outside of a prep class like this, listening to a law-school lecture on YouTube and then formulating some hypothetical questions. Or the same idea could be accomplished with a different communication medium. A student could read some difficult material and then imagine questions for a professor about what the student understands and where that understanding trails off into confusion and questions.

What else? Listening to people.

Effective classroom listening is valuable and necessary for law-school success, but not actually sufficient for good lawyering. What about the kind of listening lawyers really do? Lawyers talk to people (some friendly, some not friendly) in real conversations, in order to learn the facts, glean motivations, find out what else needs to be known, and discern how to make recommendations and arguments. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. The point is the intellectual listening integrating large blocks of topical detail in the 1L year is very different from the kind of listening lawyers actually do. A student might find it difficult to follow three classes on what constitutes various types of offers, but that same student might find herself highly motivated to interview a client about an alleged agreement starting with a so-called offer.

So here’s a proposal for some unorthodox advice on law school preparation, with a particular focus on listening. In the summer before law school, volunteer to take an oral history for an archive project. Interview an older relative about some aspect of his or her life. Tutor a kid one-on-one. Invite a potential mentor to lunch and get that person talking about life and law school and law practice.

It’s not exactly sipping piña coladas and having “me” time by the beach. Some of those suggestions may actually involve writing! But spending time in conversations like this will build listening skills. And it may even build up resilience and motivation—qualities that will definitely be needed later, to get over the hump of the 1L year.

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