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

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