Listening Skills in the Law School Classroom

This post is for law professors, educators, and anyone interested in listening-related skills training…

Listening contributes to law students’ success in many ways. From participating in class discussion to doing good work in clinics to writing an exam that reflects what was discussed in class, students who listen effectively are in a better position to succeed in law school. They are also in a better position to effectively handle job interviews and real assignments on the job.

Law professors therefore may want to spend some time emphasizing listening skills, either explicitly or implicitly. Here are a few ideas for integrating listening skills into any law school class. Please share feedback and more ideas in the comments.

  1. Model a client interview.

Modeling means showing how to do something the right way. It could also mean showing how to do something with a mix of successful and less successful moments, then discussing the challenges and the process. Either way, students can begin to learn by seeing and hearing models in action.

Modeling a client interview is an excellent way to demonstrate effective listening. “Modeling of listening techniques makes effective practices visible to students,” writes Professor Neil Hamilton writes in his law review article Effectiveness Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills. (Professor Hamilton’s article was foundational for this blog four years ago and remains so today.)

Modeling an interview during class time would be a significant investment of class time. For teaching in clinics, this investment should pay off directly. Students who have seen and discussed effective listening during an interview are far more likely to do the same in their own work with clients.

In doctrinal classes, a model client interview would be unconventional but could demonstrate good lawyering (including listening) while also covering doctrinal material in a vivid way. One specific idea comes to mind: remedies. Clients may feel they are entitled to some particular measure of compensation that the law actually does not allow. A client interview could bring out the client’s ideas of what he or she deserves, including the lawyer’s careful listening even where the client’s damages theory cannot be supported by law. And then the discussion after the interview could address the substance of remedies as well as the interpersonal challenges of communicating with clients.

  1. Offer listening conferences with assessment and feedback.

The next step after modeling a skill is letting students try it. A “listening conference” is one way to do this, as suggested by Hamilton in his listening article. The listening conference would be a chance for students to role-play a client interview or talk about a doctrinal area of law, and then get feedback on listening.

The conversation partner would be a professor (if time permits) or perhaps a teaching assistant, or a student’s mentor in the legal community. Afterward, the conversation partner would provide feedback and assessment of the student’s listening. The feedback could involve a play-by-play of certain key moments:

  • “I felt like you really heard me when I was talked about xyz because your eye contact and body language were very receptive.”
  • “When I mentioned xyz, it seemed like you started thinking about what you were going to say.”
  • “You used active listening techniques when I described my goals as a client, but you didn’t restate one aspect of my goals, so I wasn’t sure you totally understood that part.”

The assessment could provide more structured feedback on criteria for listening. The criteria’s substance is a topic for future blog posts here. Hamilton has some sample assessment rubrics such as a student’s performance during a client interview.

  1. If you use Power Point, use it to promote listening and learning.

Reading text and listening to words simultaneously just does not work in the brain. The science suggests that far from reinforcing cognitive connections, these redundant inputs impose an “extraneous cognitive load” that interferes with learning.

That is one of many reasons it’s such an awful idea to use text-heavy Power Point slides. Use a blank placeholder slide in every presentation, advises Professor Paul Zwier of Emory Law School, author of Power Point 2003 for Professors. Navigate the Power Point to the blank backdrop when you want students to focus entirely on listening.

To promote effective listening, consider abandoning the bullet points, at least on what you show during a lecture. Intensely visual slides such as what you can make with Haiku Deck or by downloading images from Creative Commons are a great backdrop to help the audience both listen and remember what you say. Seth Godin recommends this best practice in his e-booklet “Really Bad Power Point (and how to avoid it)”:

You can use the screen to talk emotionally to the audience’s right brain (through their eyes), and your words can go right through the audience’s ears to talk to their left brain.

  1. Enforce a classroom 5-second rule.

Another common issue with listening in the classroom is that students may not have enough time to remember—much less process—what was said at key moments. The bounds of working memory are an inherent limitation on effective listening. And in the law school class, the words in a lecture and discussion sometimes come so fast and furious that sometimes students may leave the class with the feeling of “What just happened?”

One protocol that can dramatically improve listening is to impose a “5-second rule”: everyone must wait 5 seconds after a speaker has concluded speaking before raising a hand or otherwise continuing with the conversation. Mark Weisberg and Jean Koh Peters suggest this method in their paper Experiments on Listening.

They report that professors meeting with other professors in small groups found an “astonishing” benefit to this protocol. Participation was both broader—no longer favoring the gunners and turn sharks—and more thoughtful. The same benefit could extend to a law school classroom.

  1. Assign students to listen to a particular case or legal authority in addition to reading it.

Various software, browser apps, and websites can read text out loud. Hearing an entire case read out loud, rather than silently reading it on the page, is a big investment of time. But intensely engaging with one or two cases this way could assist learning, especially for beginners. To use one common error students make when learning the structure of court opinions, where does the review of precedent end and the court’s own decision begin? I believe that listening to the case could help them slow down and recognize the different components of the opinion.

(And please don’t ignore this suggestion because you think “some people aren’t auditory learners.” The idea of a learning style may reflect an individual’s desired learning preference but not necessarily a more effective way for that individual to learn any given material. See here and here.)

The suggestion to listen to a case is better suited for students’ own time outside of class. Class time could also involve short breaks from the lecture in which students read to one another. Bear with me here: Performing the law with a speaker and listener in this way could set up the significance of statutory language or a short segment of a case. The student reading the case out loud would have to decide how to inflect the reading, and the student doing the listening would get the benefit of hearing the words. It may feel forced and awkward to the students and perhaps to the professor as well, but they almost certainly would remember the language better as result of the process.

Better listening leads to better learning as well as better lawyering. These exercises are just a few ideas for focusing on listening in the law school classroom. The articles cited here contain many more ideas, and please also share ideas in the comments to this post.

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