Q&A with Peg Cheng, the Prelaw Guru

ChengPeg Cheng has worked in prelaw advising for more than twelve years, six and a half with the University of Washington (UW) and another six as the founder of her law school admissions consulting company, Prelaw Guru, which helps aspiring law students prepare their applications. Before that she worked in career counseling as well, bringing her grand total in higher education student services to 18 years.

And she says:

“I’m done.”

Peg is moving into full-time work as a writer. She is in the process of wrapping up Prelaw Guru as of July 2016. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Peg for sharing some of her insights from her years of experience working with aspiring law students.

What has your work in prelaw advising taught you about listening?

What really is an advisor? The advisor has two jobs: One, listen. Two, tell the truth. That’s it.

All the work I’ve done with college students has taught me to be a better listener and a better writer. I couldn’t have done it without the students. Some people think advising is about talking. But if you don’t listen first, your advice is not effective.

How have you used listening with the students you advised and your clients in prelaw consulting?

Clients always tell me they appreciate the opportunity to think about their own stories. That’s what I’ve done: listen to their stories in person, on the phone or Skype, and in their prewriting on the writing prompts I’ve given them.

I was spending so much time with the interviewing and listening that I developed an exercise called “49 Stories.” They are writing prompts to help law-school applicants brainstorm what they might talk about in their personal statements. The process is for the student to set a timer for 3-5 minutes and write as fast as they can. What I’ve noticed is that the internal editor starts to turn off.

The 49 Stories are organized to begin with “softballs”—that is, easier prompts. As the student progresses, deeper prompts are sprinkled in. Completing the exercises allows the person to first sit back and appreciate the ideas they’ve come up with—and also to start to see themes from their life.

So this was a way of saving my own time spent on all those interviews. But the writing itself helps. The more they write, the less they fear the whole process of writing a personal statement. Dyslexic students are an exception. They’re allowed to write less and then tell me more over the phone or Skype.

I read their stuff and tell them what stories I heard. They are in the middle of it and couldn’t see the stories that are valuable to tell. They would spill their guts and then didn’t know what to do after that. So, I would give them permission to write about their lives. They would say “Oh, I can write about that? I never thought of that.”  I help them see how the story is a good representation of them. 99 percent of the time, they say “You’re right, I’ve got to tell that story.” And then they crank it out.

Law school admissions officers are always telling applicants that personal statements need to be personal and about you, even if inspired by another person. Generally there’s going to be one with stronger and more personal elements. It’s almost always the most personal story. Not necessarily the most tragic, but the most personal. It’s about finding the personal in your past and ascribing meaning to it.

Some professors have said personal statements are so trite and formulaic. But I push back against that. If you’re tired of reading something formulaic, that means you’re tired of reading stories. Stories are formulaic! The subject matter changes, but the formula is the same.

The best story to tell almost always has to do with making a change. Stories are about change. And stories are really about human survival.

Law school applicants have the opportunity to meet with admissions officers at law school fairs and forums.  What’s your advice to applicants for managing those conversations?

Students go in thinking, “I’m going to apply these particular schools.” And they are listening to anything that backs up their plan. If they hear something that doesn’t back it up, they’ll stop listening.

When you are really listening, it sparks more questions. Some students are thinking so much about how they present themselves that they ask questions but don’t really listen. And honestly when I was 20 or 21, I was like that too. So let’s clarify some of the reasons this happens: Nerves get in the way. Ego gets in the way.

Students think they will impress the admissions officers by speaking—by what they say. But listening can help them create a better impression. Someone once shared with me some advice I’ll never forget:

Instead of trying to be interesting, try to be interested in.

Whenever I follow this advice, the people I’m talking with and listening to develop a higher opinion of me than if I had tried to impress by talking and being interesting.

Asking questions is a great opportunity to listen and learn. What are some of your favorite questions for law school applicants to ask?

I tell students to ask questions that most people don’t ask. For example, how frequently does the Dean meet with students? How easy is it for students to meet with the Dean? Some admissions people know this right off the bat. Others give vague answers with nothing set up institutionally. Be suspicious of that. The Dean sets the culture and attitude of the law school. Having a regular time to meet with students shows a level of care for the students.

I also ask about faculty culture. I watch how the admission person acts when answering the question. They may not have a great relationship with the faculty. Do they smile instantly? Do they look away and hesitate? For me, how they answer is as important as what they say.

What do you see in prelaw students today?

For me, prelaw students seem to fall into two major camps. They are all achievers—because the people I’ve worked with at Prelaw Guru are by definition achievers in some way—but they generally fall into two groups.

There’s a small group who are good listeners and also very humble and very skilled. They often have something like a 3.9 GPA and a good LSAT score. They aren’t perfect. They are very neurotic and worried about their future. But there’s a relationship between their humbleness, their skill, and their dedication. This is a very small group and they always amaze me. I’m always heartened to find that the most achieving students are also the most humble and the most worried.

The other group is much larger. They’ve struggled too, but I don’t know if they realized how hard law school is going to be. They’re not as worried. They tend to think they will continue doing what they’ve been doing. They may not have been challenged enough in college. They’re not arrogant, but they haven’t experienced enough to know how hard it’s really going to be. They may not have ever failed.

You mentioned a certain profile of some law students as humble but also worried. How do you think law students can cultivate their mental health throughout this process?

One of the biggest problems I see with prelaw students is they depend too much on external markers of success. They get depressed when they don’t receive those external markers, like the grade they wanted to get in a certain class. The focus on external markers leads to anxiety, drinking, and depression.

Those who are more mature realize it’s about internal markers of success. Even if they don’t get the grade they wanted, they can focus on what they learned from the class and the professor. I worked with one law student who was 10 years older than the typical law student. He grew up in a low-income area with a single mom. He said he had been lawyering ever since he was 12 years old, standing on the street corner listening to people, giving them advice, and helping them advocate for themselves. And this is the advice he gave me to pass on:

You have to rage against the machine.

The machine wants you to believe if you get high grades, you’ll be a good lawyer. If you get a big law job, you’ll be a good lawyer.

But you have to realize the machine is not you. You have to find your own version of success.

This student knew he wanted to be a public defender. He would constantly ask for help and get to know everyone both in and out of the law school who could help him toward that goal. And by his third year, he had his job offer in the public defender’s office before graduation and was ready to go.

In terms of listening, how can prelaw students get ready to be better listeners in law school and as practicing attorneys?  

Any type of work experience or internship or volunteer work where they have to listen will help them later. It doesn’t have to be legally oriented. One of my clients did customer service for a pharmaceutical company that helped her develop great listening skills. Many students I’ve met have done  intake work as an intern or volunteer where they have to interview people and then write up those interviews in a report. They benefit from understanding what it means to be of service by listening rather than by speaking. Journalism is also great.

I’m not a fan of lectures where students take a lot of notes then take a test. Sadly, many classes are taught this way. It may be necessary to impart content and a certain way of thinking to students, but I think schools with more hands-on learning in classes will have more successful students.

Students should think about how they learn best. Some can read and absorb what they’ve read. Others need to read and then reiterate out loud what they’ve read. Others learn best by hearing the material spoken out loud. There are lots of different ways of learning and the students who do the best have found ways to support or supplement their learning style.

How have you worked on your own listening skills?

The more I listen and take risks at telling the truth about what I’m hearing, the better results I get. I did a lot of own experimentation with advising during my years at the UW. Also I had several years of personal and business coach training prior to working at the UW that helped me a lot. As I kept experimenting with my students, I realized that’s what people are really looking for—for someone to listen to them and tell them the truth—even if they don’t seem to know that’s what they want initially.

What I have learned is to listen to clients and ask questions that help the client come up with their own solutions. And I tell the truth about what I heard. I try to ask questions that lead the person to the truth, for them. It’s important to understand as well that what’s the truth means different things for different people.

You are working on a career transition yourself.

I’ve always been writing on the side. Last year I wrote a middle-grade novel. I’m working on an adult suspense novel now and I’m also writing a personal finance book for college students.

This month, I’m wrapping up my consulting business and my online personal statement class. My last clients for this admission cycle have all got back to me and let me know their plans, so I feel good about that. It’s been great to help so many people, but I’m one of those people who likes more variety. And I think you should get out of something when you still like what you’re doing. So I will be a full-time writer this whole year, and then see where I’m at next January.

What’s funny is that being a full-time writer has really helped me relate more to my clients and the fears they had about writing their personal statements. They would tell me, “I don’t know if I can do it. But I keep telling myself, this is so important. This is going to decide my future.” I can totally relate to that! This is my year for writing; it’s not a year about procrastinating about writing. That means every single day, I go through the fear and the self-doubt, and just do it.

Listening flow

Watching the NBA finals—and seeing Stephen Curry score 38 points in Game 4—makes this a good time to talk about “flow.” Flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Curry echoed these words in analyzing game 4: “I think we just got back to enjoying the process . . . .”

Flow comes up in an older basketball story from Bill Russell, recounted by business author Jeff Walker:

He described a playoff game where, for five minutes, the court “opened up” to him: somehow he knew where every player was (including those who were behind his back) and exactly what moves he needed to make. Even more mysterious, all of Russell’s teammates felt exactly the same. They scored more points during those five minutes than ever before. Leaving the court in victory, they turned to one another and said, “We have to figure out how to do that again!”

Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been writing about flow since the 1970s and founded the field of “flow research.” (Here’s his TED Talk.) In a chapter on “The Concept of Flow” co-written with Jeanne Nakamura, he itemized the characteristics of being in flow:

  • Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Loss of reflective self-consciousness (i.e., loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor)
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions; that is, a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process

The conditions for achieving this state include having a clear goal, immediate feedback, and a good match between the person’s skill level and the difficulty of the task. Flow is most associated with creative activities and sports (thus the connection to basketball). Flow is not so much associated with passive activities. As the studies point out, watching TV is not the same thing as achieving flow.

What about practicing law? Much has been written about lawyers’ achieving flow as part of career satisfaction, such as here and here and here. And in particular, what about lawyering and listening? Listening is a “receptive” communication channel along with reading, unlike the productive channels of writing and talking. (I take it as a given we all know lawyers who enter some kind of personal “zone” when they are talking.)

The most direct approach to listening and flow is to look at listening as part of a larger project with a goal. For example, taking a deposition. A deposition is an intense listening experience aimed at producing something very specific, namely a useful written record to use in the litigation. While working toward that goal during the deposition experience, lawyers may find it comes pretty naturally to focus and enter a flow state on what the witness is saying and what questions to ask. The adrenaline certainly helps. And if a real-time digital transcript is available, that’s instant feedback as well. On the other hand, achieving flow supposedly means getting past worry and fear of failure. I’m not sure most lawyers taking depositions would say they completely let go of fear and worry in the experience.

Also the idea of flow is that you lose the awareness of yourself as a social actor. But contentious depositions mean maintaining several layers of social awareness—not just the question being asked, but also the potential leverage for various motions and other interventions if the lawyers and witnesses do not cooperate. So it does seem possible for a lawyer taking a deposition to experience aspects of flow such as intense focus and distorted perception of time, I’m not sure many would claim they truly felt flow in a situation like this. Thoughts and feedback are certainly welcome in the comments here as well as on social media (Twitter: @ListenLikeaLwyr).

What about listening when there is not necessarily a clear external goal such as making the record? The best conversationalists seem to be motivated by the goal of just focusing on the other person—having a conversation because the other person is just so interesting. One of the scholarly models of listening has a final step of “staying connected and motivated.” (This is the Worthington/Fitch-Hauser model.) Great conversationalists seem to be intensely focusing on the conversation, easily able to contribute without effort, and intrinsically rewarded by the experience of having it. And whether or not they are actually experiencing flow, they create the perception of flow for the other person in the conversation.

Beyond listening for a project (such as making a record) and listening one-on-one, collaborating with others in a group has at least the possibility of some sort of flow. Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura refer to “shared flow.” Business author Jeff Walker (who recounted the Bill Russell story above) calls it a “collective flow state.” Not a lot has been written about this idea of shared or collective flow; Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura suggest it needs more academic study.

Some articles on lawyering and legal education do raise the possibility of creating flow within collaborative groups of lawyers and law students. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept is cited in this article on the experience of team lawyering doing clinical work for Haitian refugees with HIV-positive status, by Albany Law School’s Raymond Brescia:

The team nature of the effort, and the affirming trust members of the team gave one another, meant that as we developed different strengths and skills, we were able to achieve benchmark milestones, receiving constant feedback along the way which gave us information that allowed us to develop our expertise.

Likewise Stephen Krieger and Serge Martinez describe the experience of flow in their article A Tale of Election Day 2008: Teaching Storytelling through Repeated Experiences, 16 Legal Writing 116 (2010). These professors led a team of students in advocating for individuals seeking to vote on November 4, 2008, and they noticed a marked and somewhat unexpected improvement in these students’ storytelling skills through the course of that single day. They concluded that flow conditions were a partial cause:

Apparently—and without any conscious intent on our part— the surroundings on that date contributed to the experience of flow. There was easy access to information; Steve, an Election Law expert, was present. There was stimulation from other students and attorneys handling similar cases. And there was an overall sense of community of purpose. As Dan implied, it felt like a neighborhood law office, not like a classroom.

These articles may actually be suggesting individual flow experienced by the students and professors in a group setting, rather than shared flow within a group performing together (such as an NBA team). When the team functions as a unit with interdependent parts—when each team member knows when to speak and when to sit back, when the lead lawyer looks down the table to ask a question only to receive the answer on a post-it already en route—that’s shared flow.

Please share your thoughts on individual and shared flow, and the experience of listening as part of flow.

In a later post, I will explore some counter-points to flow such as this post from Cal Newport suggesting that seeking flow is not the same as engaging in deliberate practice. I’ve often thought that for legal writers, seeking a feeling of flow may not produce high-quality work, especially for very new legal writers. The article about the Election Day clinic appeared to be describing an upper-level clinic where students had a base of knowledge to deploy that day. I want to think more about how this point could apply to communication and listening.

In the meantime, here’s a link to an ABA Journal article on flow for lawyers, by Steven Keeva, a prolific and kind ABA writer who was gone too soon:









Listening for summer associates

A successful summer-associate experience means doing good work and creating good social impressions. Listening skills can help with both.

The assignment and the work

The most obvious place to talk about listening and work product is in the incredibly important meeting where the senior lawyer communicates the assignment.Here’s a checklist for listening while taking an assignment. One theory of checklists is that they shouldn’t include the obvious things everybody already knows and does. If you read Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, you will learn that effective checklists should not be overloaded with obvious items no one actually forgets to do. But in case it’s not obvious, let me quote one to-do item (thrice repeated) in The Vault’s advice piece on “Acing Your Law Firm Summer”:

Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. 

The advanced skill is to take notes while still asking good questions and maintaining a conversational tone. And an even more advanced skill is perceiving what isn’t there. Legal writing guru Ross Guberman has suggested that “in this iPhone age, supervisors often forget to relay key information.” Reviewing a checklist before the meeting can help prompt good questions during the meeting to bring out valuable information.

Confirming the assignment in writing after the meeting can prompt the attorney to share further crucial information: “Attorneys are text people, so seeing your write-up might help your supervisor steer you onto the right track before it’s too late.” And this type of confirmation can showcase listening and writing skills as well. But I’ve also heard attorneys express annoyance at receiving e-mail back confirmations of every assignment-related conversation. The more formal and significant the assignment, the more appropriate it is to confirm the facts and assignment in writing.

Listening can play a broader role even before the assigning conference.  It has to do with picking up underlying knowledge and context for doing the job well. The most effective legal work product is effective partly because it is grounded in the lawyer’s understanding of that area of law and how it works in practice. Lawyers with experience in a particular practice area are more effective than beginners at what they do partly because they have “tacit” knowledge—that is, knowledge that is not written down and is difficult to share.

The ABA’s Before the Bar publication highlighted the role of tacit knowledge and why it’s so important to aspiring lawyers:

Your goal should be to gain tacit knowledge in order to build your practical skill set. To do this, attorneys need to transfer their tacit knowledge to you and the most effective way to do this is through extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. In other words, tacit knowledge is transferred through practice.

Summer associates cannot be expected to have the tacit knowledge that veteran lawyers in a practice area do. But summer associates who show they can pick up tacit knowledge quickly and apply it in their work are likely to stand out. For example a patent lawyer needs different ways of communicating with engineering clients and generalist judges. That’s maybe not a great example of tacit knowledge because it’s not so difficult to share.

Perhaps a better example is what it’s like to work with clients who don’t necessarily feel a great deal of affection and affinity for the law or lawyers in general. To take this social example a bit further, what is it like to work with clients who have a strong in-group identity? Let’s take doctors or more specifically surgeons, for example. Clients with a strong in-group identity may or not be willing to trust lawyers hovering at the edges of the in-group, and the most effective lawyers are highly perceptive about how to work with such clients. (Highly successful sports and entertainment lawyers come to mind here as well.)

Tacit knowledge about how a lawyer and a law firm go about working with such clients can help not just in a general social sense but with performing the substance of the work. The way a lawyer would communicate with such clients is very different from communicating with a legal writing professor or a senior lawyer. The substance of how to be successful in these settings goes beyond broad statements like “think of your audience” and easily transferable points like “don’t use legal jargon with non-lawyers.” In the ABA article, author Max Rosenthal went on to assert that all practical legal skills are rooted in tacit knowledge—not only writing and communication, but analysis itself.

Listening can help a summer associate begin to access some of this tacit knowledge. Through “shadow” programs and being invited along on a deposition or other legal event, summer associates can  just watch, listen, and learn. As with good law-school externships, these opportunities may be some of the most inclusive and rare opportunities to listen and learn, relatively free as they are of the pressure to bill time.

Tacit knowledge is, by definition, difficult to access directly. But conversations with lawyers in a practice area may be a start. Good conversations before any particular assignment can yield information about how lawyers do their job well in a particular practice area with particular types of clients. Show curiosity. Ask them about their experiences, successes, and challenges in that practice. What do they wish they had known when they started? Listen carefully to their words, and watch their nonverbal communication as they share their experiences. What are they telling with their nonverbal communication, as well as showing with their words? All of this information is valuable toward understanding this person and this person’s experience in this area of law. For good listeners who are curious, every piece of information they collect helps them do their work more effectively.

Social skills

Summer associates need to show that not only can they do the work, but they are also a “good fit” at the firm internally and can be trusted to interact with clients. These concerns mean summer associates should work on all kinds of social skills such as dressing appropriately and monitoring alcohol intake.

Listening helps across the entire spectrum of social skills. Here are just a few examples:

  • Showing curiosity by asking good questions and responding appropriately to the answers to continue the conversation
  • Knowing when to sit back and observe, such as when a senior lawyer is interacting with the client and the summer associate has the good fortune to be there
  • Maintaining focus on the situation even when not playing a direct role
  • Being able to converse informally (such as at a happy hour) by starting a conversation, bringing other people into the conversation, and leaving a conversation
  • Demonstrating recollection of earlier details and bringing them into later conversations appropriately

Evaluating listening

There don’t seem to be any published summer associate evaluation forms, but it is a certainty that they include criteria for effective communication skills. Communication involves four distinct channels: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Listening may not be mentioned explicitly to the same extent as effective oral and written communication, but it is part of effective communication.

Listening can be subtle and hard to measure. It’s so difficult to say  whether another person is a good listener or a great listener. But when it comes to human perception and evaluation of others, “bad is stronger than good.” That means a hiring committee’s evaluation discussions may focus on problems or concerns, rather than subtle gradations of what went well. Some aspects of poor listening may be hidden—for example, not catching the subtleties of an assignment and therefore writing an acceptable memo that misses an opportunity to add value. (More on adding value below.) But some bad listening is very easy to spot. Looking at one’s smartphone while in the presence of a Very Important Person would be one example of what not to do.

Adding value and building professional identity

Listening can help a summer associate achieve the most nebulous and most important goal of all—“adding value” to the legal work of the firm. It’s a buzzword and maybe even a cliche, but there are ways for summer associates to add value by listening. Observing a deposition could provide an opportunity to watch the witness’s body language and suggest a follow-up question after a break. Shadowing a corporate lawyer could open up conversations about different ways to handle a type of transaction depending on the client’s goals. Asking questions that demonstrate understanding and curiosity about the profession suggests a greater long-term potential for adding value.

And listening can also help the summer associate directly with an more individual goal (one that is also nebulous but also important): building that summer associate’s own professional identity as a lawyer. One definition of professional identity is “the way a lawyer understands his or her role relative to all of the stakeholders in the legal system, including clients, courts, opposing parties and counsel, the firm, and even the legal system itself (or society as a whole).” (This is from Scott Fruehwald’s book Developing Your Professional Identity: Creating Your Inner Lawyer, quoting an article by Martin Katz on teaching professional identity in law schools.)

Certainly law school is a place where professional identity starts to form; taking those skills out into the almost-real-world of being a summer associate should be an even more meaningful opportunity to do so. However the summer turns out, it will have been some kind of step on the way towards a more fully formed professional identity.

This post was updated from its original form to include the ABA article recommending practical experience as the method for law students to acquire tacit knowledge.

For more reading on listening and summer associates: Listening as a hard skill and a soft skill

For more on checklists and legal writing: The Legal Writer’s Checklist Manifesto