Month: May 2017

Emotional intelligenceMentoringPeople skillsProfessional developmentSmartphones

Summer-associate advice

When I speak to summer associates, I always tell them they have two jobs:

  1. do great work and gain as many opportunities as possible within the employer’s organization, should they end up working there; and
  2. study the employer, lawyers and staff, and the overall culture to discern if it’s a good fit for them.

Listening will help with both of these jobs.

As far as doing great work, summer associates should start using their listening skills before the job starts. Use social media to “listen” (in the sense of monitoring) to what the employer is saying to the public. What topics seem to be interesting? Who’s writing? What tone do the lawyers use in their publications and social-media content? What personality do they project?

Summer associates should also talk to mentors about how to do a good job as a summer associate generally, and (from mentors within the organization) how to do a good job in that particular setting. Ask good questions, listen, and follow up with more good questions. Listen actively and paraphrase the advice back to the mentor sharing it. Take notes later, reflecting on the advice and assimilating it even more thoroughly. Send thoughtful follow-up messages that demonstrate listening skills and reinforce the relationships being built.

Once the job starts, listening skills are crucial during any meeting to take down an assignment. Beyond the basics like expected format and deadline, the assigning meeting offers so much more for the careful listener: the supervisor’s own baseline of knowledge in the area of law, attitude toward the case, expected answer to the assignment, expected difficulty of the assignment, general areas of confidence, and general areas of perceived risk. All of this information can be highly valuable in completing an assignment at a level beyond basic law-student competence.

“Shadowing” work such as observing a deposition or negotiation may not be a true assignment, if there is no deliverable work product. But during a shadowing experience, it seems crucial to display the highest form of attentiveness. Even if an attorney working on the case displays distracted behavior such as checking email on a phone, the summer associate should not feel free to reciprocate that behavior. Buying into the myth of reciprocity—the senior lawyer checked her phone, so it was appropriate and for the summer associate to do so as well—seems like one way to make a bad impression. What’s more important to a summer associate than the valuable opportunity to observe right in front of them? Unless they have a family crisis or already on a deadline for another supervisor within the organization and can explain that to the people around them, it seems likely that nothing is more important. On a more positive note, careful listening and good follow-up questions can actively show a person’s potential as a future lawyer.

Another opportunity to listen happens during a debrief on any assignment. This is the opportunity to accept constructive criticism gracefully, i.e. non-defensively and in a manner that makes the supervisor comfortable working with that summer associate again in the future. Another lesson is that sometimes (oftentimes?) in the legal world, feedback isn’t really helpful or specific. Or it isn’t there at all. Seeking out feedback and asking good questions show a dedication to professional development and professionalism generally.

Strong listening skills during the interview are likely part of the reason a summer associate got the job in the first place. Listening skills on the job are just as crucial, and actually even more so.

Here’s another post hitting some of these same themes and delving into more detail on listening for summer associates:








Clinical legal educationLaw schoolLegal educationLegal skillsMoot Court

Habit-forming classrooms     

How much time do law students spend in class? I’ve been thinking about the behavioral implications of so much time in front of laptop screens. I look forward to reading but don’t actually need to read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked to know that looking at a screen is some kind of behavioral habit. And the time students spend in law-school classrooms may be feeding that habit.

Yes, some professors ban laptops. Most do not. Yes, some law students use their laptops just exactly like a yellow legal pad and quill pen, never once checking any updated social media feed during class. But most do not. So just how much time do law students spend in front of laptop screens during a typical three-year JD program?

An estimate can be derived from ABA regulations for law schools, which I learned more about at the Legal Writing Institute’s recent conference for moot court advisors helped to answer this question. ABA Standard 311 requires 83 credit hours to graduate, 64 hours of which must constitute  “attendance in regularly scheduled classroom sessions or direct faculty instruction.” The broad topic of ABA requirements came up at the moot court conference because within this 64 hours, students graduating in 2019 and after will need six hours of experiential-learning credits to graduate. Moot court advisors from Oklahoma City College of Law, Mississippi College of Law, the University of North Dakota, and Ohio State University talked about the new ABA requirement for experiential learning.

That number—64 hours—is the key to answering my question about total laptop time.

Let’s use the ABA’s numbers to assume that a student takes only 64 classroom hours to graduate and the rest of the 83 comes from extracurricular activities, externships, and other types of educational activities.

Out of the required 64, let’s further assume six of those are experiential learning in a clinic or simulation, in which students should be closing their laptops and working closely with people a substantial portion of that time.

That leaves another 58 hours of course credit in lecture and Socratic law-school classes. Let’s assume the student uses a laptop during all of that time. Is this an unrealistic assumption? I don’t think so, but you can easily adjust the math below to reach estimates for 80 percent laptop usage or 60 percent laptop usage.

If we do assume the student opens a laptop for notetaking during all of these class sessions throughout law school, what’s the total time that student’s eyeballs will be on the screen?

A credit hour is 50 minutes of classroom time per week plus two hours of preparation time (ignored for purposes of this calculation). Each semester has 15 weeks, but one of those weeks can be used for exam review and exam taking. Thus the total amount of classroom time can be calculated as follows:

50 minutes a week,

14 weeks a semester,

multiplied by 58 credit-hours.

What’s the mathematical result?

40,600 minutes

677 hours

84-and-a-half business days

That’s a lot of time with eyeballs on screens. Taking notes in a law-school lecture may not be habit-forming like Candy Crush, but it’s still a behavior. Repeat a behavior enough, and you have a habit (colloquially defined). Walk into the room, take out the laptop, pop it open and turn it on. When the professor begins to speak, direct attention to the front of the room, and start typing. Listen for a while and keep up with class, typing notes in bullet and sub-bullet form vertically down a Word or notes page of some sort. Then a thought pops up about an expected email reply. Open a tab to quickly check. Keep one ear on the professor’s words and get them down. Close the email tab and return to the notes doc. Rinse and repeat.

The 58 credit-hours of classroom time make up almost two-thirds of a student’s academic time in law school. Assuming that a student gets excellent training and practice on interviewing (including listening skills) somewhere in the other 35 credit-hours, can that training and practice overcome the weeks, days, and hours spent looking at the laptop? Of course people use different communication skills and tools in a large classroom and a one-on-one interview. But are these communication habits so easily siloed and separated? What is the leakage—if any—between classroom listening habits and professional listening habits? As Will Durant said in paraphrasing Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

This month tens of thousands of law students are shaking off their final exams and going out into the “real world” for summer work. At courts, agencies, businesses, and law firms, these personal laptops will largely be left behind. But what habits won’t be?


Here are just a few of many recent articles on laptops in the law-school classroom:

Kristen Murray, Let them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate over Laptops in the Classroom

James Levy, Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School

Steven Eisenstat, A Game-Changer: Assessing the Impact of the Princeton/UCLA Laptop Study on the Debate of Whether to Ban Student Use of Laptops during Class




AdvocacyLaw school skills competitionsLegal educationLegal skillsLitigation

Deliberate practice and lawyering skills

This past weekend, the Legal Writing Institute hosted its second Biennial Moot Court Conference at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Several of the talks touched on listening-related themes. Kent Streseman of the Chicago-Kent College of Law explored the concept of “deliberate practice” for moot court competitors. His summary of the tenets of deliberate practice could be useful for anyone who wants to improve their mental dexterity and ability to think on their feet. 

I once heard Rutgers Law professor Ruth Anne Robbins refer to moot court with an analogy to “muscle memory.” In sports, building up muscle memory can be a good thing—or a bad thing. If you learn how to swim the wrong way and then repeat the mistake over and over, she said, you won’t become a better swimmer no matter how much you practice. (Likewise for lawyers preparing presentations and arguments, creating wordy PowerPoint slides and then silently reading them to yourself may not be the path to great public speaking.)

In his Chicago talk, Streseman made a related point about sub-optimal practice: Even practicing correctly but in the standard, same way over and over is not going to produce results, especially if it’s ill-informed to begin with. Repetitive practice doesn’t help a learner progress beyond a certain fixed point, and in fact, “skills tend to regress.” 

The “gold standard” of preparation is “deliberate practice,” a concept from Anders Ericsson’s work summarized for a popular audience in Ericsson’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. The purpose of deliberate practice is to yield expert performance:

The hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less well-developed mental representations.

To build up these mental representations, you need deliberate practice. In his talk Streseman outlined some of the conditions of deliberate practice:

  • The practices must be challenging, with the learner giving their full attention to a task demanded beyond the edge of their comfort zone.
  • The feedback needs to be informed by experts’ accomplishments and understanding of what they themselves do to excel.
  • The feedback must be followed by the opportunity to modify the performance in response, and to recover and reflect on the practice.

These types of focused practices lead to more effective mental representations of the argument in the competitor/advocate’s own mind. And having those effective mental representations mean the competitors can react more quickly to questions and make better decisions on what to say next and how.

The closest connection to listening seemed to be the crucial fact that deliberate practice requires the learner’s full attention. Moreover, the learner has to actually listen and adjust to the feedback provided. Speaking and speaking and speaking again without attention to feedback may be practice, but it’s not deliberate. You can do that in front of a mirror or your dog, and we all know sometimes that’s what a person needs to initially prepare. As beginners approach a task, they may need some repetitive practice with no feedback to get into their comfort zone. Once there, they can then start to push beyond that zone.

But rehearsing to a dog is too comfortable. It’s not deliberate practice, as the dog’s feedback is not informed by experts’ accomplishments and methods of excelling. My dog has been a lawyer’s dog most of his life, spanning three owners with a variety of practice experience both civil and criminal. All three of these lawyers were moot court types. But the dog still can’t coach moot court effectively.

Thanks to Kent Streseman for his talk on deliberate practice and moot court, and to John Marshall Law School and the Legal Writing Institute for hosting the conference.  I look forward to reading Peak and sharing any additional insights from delving into it.  I also hope to share more posts from the conference with additional connections to listening. Until then, you can access tweets from me and others at #LWIMootCourt.