Month: August 2016

Legal communication

Eulogy

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for a beloved family member. An activist in his church and community, he was remembered with love everywhere he shared his talents. The eulogy featured one line I wanted to share:

“He had a booming voice . . . but he was a good listener.”

Rest in peace, Lee.

Law practiceLegal educationLegal skillsProfessional development

Tomorrow’s lawyers

What do lawyers need to be good lawyers? A project in Denver is investing a lot of time, energy, and resources into answering that question. It’s the Foundations for Practice study, generated by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.

The background on Foundations for Practice is this:

In late 2014, we launched Foundations for Practice (“FFP”), a national, multi-year project designed to:

1. Identify the foundations entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession;

2. Develop measurable models of legal education that support those foundations; and

3. Align market needs with hiring practices to incentivize positive improvements in legal education.

And since then, they have managed to start and finish a huge survey, reaching 24,000 lawyers nationwide. Their survey covered a breadth of law-related topics:

We asked respondents to rate the necessity of 147 foundations (plus two questions that allowed write-in responses); we asked fourteen questions to identify respondent demographics and practice information; we asked about the value of specialization in law school and in early practice; and we asked the respondents to identify the helpfulness of employment criteria (like law school attended, class rank, clinical experience, externships, and letters of recommendation).

One of their key goals was to survey what skills need to be in place when lawyers start their careers, as contrasted with skills that can and should be learned over time on the job. What’s important for new lawyers? Questions on the survey about what new lawyers need probed respondents’ thoughts in three categories:

  • “Legal skills” are those traditionally understood to be required for the specific discipline of law (such as preparing a case on appeal).
  • “Professional competencies” are skills seen as useful across vocations (such as managing meetings effectively).
  • “Characteristics” are foundations capturing features or qualities (such as sociability).

The overall payoff of the Foundations for Practice study is that respondents ranked these categories in the following order of importance:

1. Character

2. Professional competencies

3. Legal skills

So this is a pretty big finding: statistically, aspects of good character were reported to be the most necessary for new lawyers right out of law school. The study got to this number by finding that 76 percent of character items in their survey (items such as “integrity and trustworthiness, conscientiousness, and common sense”) were ranked by half or more of the respondents as necessary.

The next most important category was professional competencies “such as listening attentively, speaking and writing, and arriving on time.” 46 percent of these competences were identified by half or more respondents as being necessary for new lawyers.

And the final category was legal skills “such as use of dispute resolution techniques to prevent or handle conflicts, drafting policies, preparing a case for trial, and conducting and defending depositions.” For these items, 40 percent were ranked by half or more of respondents as being necessary for new lawyers.

The section of the report titled Foundations for Practice contains an overall summary of the 77 characteristics, competencies, and skills that more than half of the respondents deemed necessary for new lawyers right away. Some of the most highly rated items involve communication:

  • 91.9 percent of respondents said it is important for new lawyers to treat others with courtesy and respect
  • 91.5 percent of respondents said it is important for new lawyers to listen attentively and respectfully
  • 80.4 percent said it is important for new lawyers to regulate emotions and demonstrate self-control
  • 77.7 percent said it is important for new lawyers to demonstrate tact and diplomacy
  • 72.9 percent said it is important for new lawyers to be able to work cooperatively and collaboratively in a team
  • 71.7 percent said it is important for new lawyers to seek and be responsive to feedback
  • 69.2 percent said it is important for new lawyers to demonstrate tolerance, sensitivity, and compassion
  • 60.8 percent said it is important for new lawyers to react calmly and steadily in challenging or critical situations

Happily, the survey reveals a broad attitude that many skills can be learned on the job as lawyers. A new lawyer can learn to draft a document or take a deposition. But the study also suggests the belief by respondents that new lawyers either cannot learn character on the job or shouldn’t need to; they should already have it.

Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers will hold its 5th Annual Conference next month. I won’t be able to attend but would welcome tweets and guest blog posts focused on communication skills from those who do attend.

Here’s another overview of the study from Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, who also serves on the study’s advisory group. His post shows how the study’s data can be mined for more specific information.

Legal communication

A simple model of listening

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

-George Box

This statement, which originated in the field of statistics, came to mind when I read a recent business article, “There Are Actually Three Kinds of Listening.” According to the article, the three kinds of listening are:

Physical

Mental

Emotional

Basically this brief article—labeled a 5-minute read—says good listeners use appropriate body language, stay attentive, and empathize.

This framework for listening is memorable, but may be oversimplistic. I cringed when I read this advice for being a strong “mental” listener:

If the person uses lots of “um’s” and “ah’s,” or hedging phrases like “sort of” and “maybe,” it’s a good bet that their ideas aren’t fully baked, or that they’re less committed to them.

After a middle-school teacher expressed this same opinion of “um” to her child, law professor Barbara Gotthelf did some academic research on linguists’ approach to “um.” She found a very different view, prompting her to publish The Lawyer’s Guide to Um:

[U]sing uh and um was not only “perfectly normal,” but also helpful in furthering effective communication.

In fact, she found,”the actual effects of fillers on listeners may be less dire than imagined and may even be beneficial under some circumstances.” I recommend Gotthelf’s article for anyone who has been harshly critiqued for using “uh” or “um”, and for anyone tempted to offer such critique to others.

This is but one critique of the basis for the “physical, mental, and emotional” formula. But using these three concepts as a checklist before a people-intensive meeting could help quite a bit. Statistician George Box also wrote, “overelaboration and overparameterization [are] often the mark of mediocrity.” For listeners interested in enhancing their actual listening behavior (as opposed to studying it later), an “overelaborated” or “overparameterized” model of listening would be useless or worse.

And this simple three-part model seems like it could actually be useful.

 

 

 

 

Clinical legal educationLaw schoolLaw school preplearning stylesLegal education

Learning styles, revisited

For the past month, I’ve been struggling with an ankle injury. Yesterday at the orthopedist’s office, the medical questionnaire asked about patients’ preferred learning style. The question was something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.21.06 AM

My answer was and remains, “ I don’t care how you give me the information as long as you fix my ankle!”

And that connects to a post from last year, “Back to school means ‘what’s your learning style?’” That post points out that learning styles are better thought of as learning preferences by individuals. It cites some research and analysis questioning whether teaching to an individual’s preferred learning style actually enhances their learning outcomes. In other words, it’s not clear that teaching to learning styles helps people actually learn.

The consensus at least among learning-style skeptics is this: learning-style preferences do not mean information actually is more effective when packaged to meet any one person’s preference. A learner may prefer to learn visually, but certain lessons about music must be presented in auditory format. A learner may prefer to learn by acting and moving, but certain math concepts must be presented visually in a formula. For physical therapy, learning by doing makes a lot of sense so you can model the right way to do the exercises. The basic takeaway is this:

The nature of the information is the most significant factor in how that information should be presented to learners.

This is an important point for those who care about good listening skills. With the popularity of texting and email and other screen-based forms of communication, comfort with and preferences for listening and face-to-face conversations would seem to be in jeopardy. Future lawyers should not use their exposure to learning styles to say, “I’m going to text the client this bad news instead of calling her because I prefer to get information in writing and visually.”

As I wrote last year, many people have written really good articles about using learning styles in the law-school classroom. And none of this is to excuse a decision by a professor to always use the Socratic method or any other default method. But it is worthwhile to question what seems to be the very popular belief that people learn information effectively when it is reshaped to fit their preferences.

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceInterviewsLaw practicePeople skills

It’s interview season

For law students working on fall campus-interviewing opportunities, here is a roundup of posts on listening during interviews:

And a few additional posts of interest to candidates facing interviews: