All posts by Jennifer Romig

Client relationshipsCross-cultural communicationEmotional intelligenceEmotional laborGender

Emotions in writing

Listening and speaking can be empathetic. Even reading (reading literary fiction, that is) is connected with empathy. But what about writing? And specifically, what about legal writing? The textbooks concur that writers are supposed to harness not only logos and ethos but also pathos in their appellate briefs and other persuasive writing. But what about the pathos—the emotion—in everyday legal writing?

Ever since learning about IBM’s Watson Tone Analyzer, I’ve wanted to try it on some legal writing. I wanted to find out what a “robot” like Watson has to say about the voice and emotions in contrasting legal-writing samples. Here’s what Watson can do:

The [Watson Tone Analyzer] service uses linguistic analysis to detect and interpret emotions, social tendencies, and language style cues found in text. Tones detected within the General Purpose Endpoint include joy, fear, sadness, anger, disgust, analytical, confident, tentative, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional range.

As shown below, Watson offers an overall document-level analysis, and it highlights sentences that score particularly high on certain emotional indicators.

For this exploration, I chose the idea of an email sample because emails should be relatively short. Also, email is so prevalent in law practice. It’s a constant, quotidian part of life for many, many lawyers. Email doesn’t stop to ask, “Is this a good time to talk?” It just arrives. And it can have a major impact on the emotions of the recipient. “”When it comes to emails that are negative in tone, it makes you angry,” Professor Marcus Butts told Time Magazine, in an article about why email puts workers in a nasty mood—especially when checking email after normal business hours. The effect of such emails spills over: “Being angry takes a lot of focus and our resources and it keeps us from being engaged with other things.”

Given email’s potential emotional impact on the daily lives of lawyers, this post explores what the Watson Tone Analyzer had to say about two mocked-up emails. The two versions below both have the purpose of forwarding discovery requests to a client. The first version uses more formal language, and the second more conversational language. What does the Tone Analyzer say about these different versions? And in a more realistic situation, could the Tone Analyzer be useful to lawyers working on their communication skills? Following the text of the two emails, the post compares and contrasts how the Watson Tone Analyzer processed these emails.


Dear Ms. Smith,

Enclosed please find the Request for Production of Documents received yesterday (December 16, 2016) (“the Requests”) in the Acme v. Client matter. The Requests entail 136 different items, comprising five basic categories:

(1) foundational corporate documents for Acme;

(2) documents related to negotiation of the lease in question between Acme and Client;

(3) calendar items and email sent and received by three key employees during the negotiations, Jane Doe, John Smith, and Jamal Jones;

(4) documents related to discussions with Third Party Industrial; and(5) accounting records related to the lease between Acme and Client.

(5) accounting records related to the lease between Acme and Client.

After reviewing these Requests, please respond providing a convenient time next week for a phone conference to review them and discuss response strategies.

Sincerely,

Antoine Associate

Antoine J. Associate

Law Firm LLP

Citytown, RH

 


Dear Janel,

This message follows up on discovery in Acme v. Client. Yesterday we received another round of document requests. I’d like to set up a call with you next week to discuss them after you’ve had a chance to review them.

There were 136 individual requests, which are enclosed with this e-mail. The requests fall into five basic categories:

(1) foundational corporate documents for Acme

(2) documents related to the lease negotiation between Acme and Client

(3) calendar items and email sent and received by three key employees during the negotiations, Jane Doe, John Smith, and Jamal Jones

(4) documents related to discussions with Third Party Industrial

(5) accounting records related to the lease between Acme and Client.

Please take a look at the requests and then let me know when would be best for you to discuss them next week.

Many thanks,

Antoine

Antoine J. Associate

Law Firm LLP

Citytown, RH


So how did Watson analyze the emotions in these two messages?

Tone Analysis of First Sample:

The dominant emotion in this message was perceived as anger. Indications of disgust, fear, joy, and sadness were “unlikely.”

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 12.55.55 PM

The sentence-level analysis indicates that the anger emanates from plain, descriptive language (what the requests entail) and the final request (“please respond…”). The pink highlighted sentences below were flagged as moderately angry wording:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 12.58.10 PM

The language in this message was viewed as both analytical and confident, but not tentative. The analytical content is highlighted here in blue, with the dark blue being more intensely analytical than the light blue:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 12.59.25 PM

 

Interestingly, the confidence score appears to come solely from the signature block containing the words “Law Firm.” (The same is true of the second sample, where “Law Firm” were also the only text flagged for confidence. But the second sample’s overall confidence score at the document level is 0.00 (unlikely) compared with .63 (likely) for this first sample. More on that later.)
Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.00.35 PM

The same text can be studied in more depth for its social tendencies including openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional range. For example, the language “Enclosed please find” was ranked as conscientious but not open, extraverted, or agreeable.  That language also scored high on emotional range. That same language was also flagged for showing anger.

Among the five items in the email’s numbered list of documents, item (3) seemed to be an emotional hot spot for Watson, scoring relatively high on all five of the emotional parameters. This result was notable because item (3) is the only item in the list that included individual people’s full names.

Here are the metrics for agreeableness, which form an interesting contrast with the second sample below. The greeting and sign-off are in light green, indicating moderate agreeableness. The only line with strong agreeableness was that same item (3) listing calendar items and emails sent by specific individuals by name. (In contrast, the second sample below tried to be friendlier and succeeded, as indicated by the more strongly agreeable opening and closing passages.)

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.05.01 PM

Tone Analysis of Second Sample

The second email was meant to be more friendly. What it accomplished, according to Watson, was slightly lessening the anger score and raising the joy score. The joy score is still “unlikely,” but it’s at .49 instead of 0.18 in the first sample. Although it’s less angry and more joyful, it also completely lost its confidence score.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.05.46 PM

Despite the overall attempt to use friendlier language, anger still emanated from the email, specifically the sentence enclosing the discovery requests:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.07.41 PM

But joy came from the revised beginning and closing words:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.08.32 PMThe message did not rank on sadness, fearfulness, or disgust.

Watson’s evaluation of the language looks for analytical, confident, and tentative language. The more informal email’s language was also measured as analytical and confident, like the more formal first sample. Unlike the formal sample, it was also somewhat tentative. The source of this tentativeness was a sentence about what the writer “would like to do”:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.10.19 PM

Not surprisingly, that same sentence was also ranked as agreeable:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.11.12 PM

Quantitatively, the informal sample contained more agreeable language, ranking 0.89 on agreeableness compared to 0.67 for the first sample.

Conclusion

What did I conclude from analyzing these two samples using Watson’s Tone Analyzer? Like many AI analysis, it seemed to confirm what I think I already know.

  1. Legal information is not inherently happy, at least not in a litigation setting. The most “angry” language in both messages was the language simply describing the scope of discovery.
  2. Language that is more tentative and less confident may also be more agreeable. This correlation raises many questions: does tentative language compromise clarity? If so is it worth it to sound more agreeable? Different writers, readers, and situations will of course require different decisions.
  3. Watson’s Tone Analzyer may be helpful to some writers on a limited basis. As with any computer analysis of language such as Flesch-Kincaid readability scores, writers should ask whether the computer analysis could help them. I don’t see legal writers building Watson’s Tone Analyzer into a checklist for every email. But it could be a worthwhile exercise just on a couple of messages, to see what predominant tone Watson diagnoses.

And as with any computer analysis of language, take it with a grain of salt. I tested Watson on litigators’ favorite nastygram conclusion:

“Govern yourselves accordingly.”

The results are below but here’s a summary: Its predominant language was sadness (?????). Its most notable social tendencies, according to the Tone Analyzer, were extraversion and agreeableness.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 1.28.57 PM

The “govern yourselves accordingly” analysis notwithstanding, a “robot” such as the Tone Analyzer could create an interesting exercise for trying different words and seeing how they measure. So . . . govern yourselves accordingly.

Note on use of Watson: these screen shots were taken on April 25 and 26, 2017. The metrics appear to have changed slightly from tests about six months earlier on identical language. Thus a final lesson is to know your tool and stay updated. Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples if relying on quantitative analysis of language. 

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.

 

Clinical legal educationDispute resolutionLegal skillsMediation

Facilitating Dialogue Across Difference

SilversteinMany thanks to Gail Silverstein, Clinical Professor of Law at the UC Hastings College of the
Law, for this guest post about the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution’s recent conference. Gail co-directs and co-teaches an Individual Representation Clinic and a Mediation Clinic at UC Hastings.

 

The 19th Annual Spring Conference of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution took place in my hometown of San Francisco, California, on April 19-22, 2017. While participants in the March for Science gathered nationally, conference attendees on Saturday morning learned about facilitating dialogue across difference from the team at the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School in a session entitled “Dialogue through Difference: Expanding the Legal Skill Set.”

Harvard’s political-dialogue initiative came out of observing both a national need for dialogues across political differences since the 2012 election and a need at the law-school level as students seemed unable to engage politically in the classroom beyond one standard “liberalish” viewpoint. The three goals of the initiative include:

  1. Educating students to skillfully facilitate and participate in dialogues across difference
  2. Serving the community by providing facilitation services
  3. Creating and sharing pedagogy in this area to build the field

The session described how the initiative is faring thus far and also introduced a new educational video, available soon, entitled “Police-Community Dialogue: A Facilitated Conversation Featuring Commentary with Harvard Law School Professor Robert C. Bordone.” (See trailer for this video here.)

Bookmark Side 2

Session speakers described how the skillset needed for facilitating dialogue across difference contrasts with those of the traditional lawyer. Three of these skills include building connection, unlearning control, and creating comfort with discomfort. Despite the contrasts with the traditional lawyer archetype, all of these named skills relate to listening as both a skill and value that is essential for today’s lawyers.

Building connection

In these dialogues, there is often not a particularized set outcome. Rather, facilitators need to help people connect to one another and their different perspectives and to try to understand where people are coming from in their viewpoints. For Tobias Berkman, who facilitated the police-community dialogue featured in the video, the most important questions used in this sensitive dialogue were ones that engaged the participants personally—for instance “How have these issues impacted you personally?” and “What to do you bring to this?”

Even more important than asking the right questions, listening is the key way we help to build connection with others. The kind of listening that these difficult facilitations require is likely the same type of listening that is helpful to lawyers in early client interviews or during emotionally laden conversation with clients: an open-ended, compassionate listening. I often refer to the work of Peter Elbow on “methodological belief” when I teach my students this type of connection-building listening.  To Elbow, methodological belief is the discipline of listening with the intention to believe what the speaker is saying.  This type of listening, Elbow advances and my experience confirms, allows the listener to feel the power of the other person and his or her ideas, which creates the connection and understanding to which we aspire.

Unlearning control

Second, political-dialogue facilitators need to unlearn that they need to control the process to have a smooth external appearance. Tobias Berkman shared that what looks and feels like a safe place to some participants is actually a “delusion” that privileges a certain kind of engagement. While some appreciate calm and rational conduct, anger and hostility are important for others to express, in order to command respect and power. To maintain a composed exterior on the dialogue does not indicate success for a facilitator as it may be clamping down on important emotions and modalities of expression.

Again, listening is a core component of unlearning control as it is the manner by which we allow the outside world to affect us. In comparison to speaking, which is one of the primary tools by which we impose ourselves on the world, when we listen we allow ourselves to be affected by others. As such, listening is a type of ceding control over ideas, emotions, and narratives to others. All lawyers need to find a good balance between speaking and listening to be effective.

Creating Comfort with Discomfort

Third, political-dialogue facilitators need to build their own comfort with discomfort as they work to move toward the disagreements, instead of shying away from conflict and the multiplicity of emotions. Berkman, along with his co-facilitator Danielle Bart, emphasized that being able to maintain and sustain vulnerability while facilitating can be incredibly powerful and can function as a model for participants. At the same time, it can be demanding for a facilitator to show up authentically as a whole person, particularly in high stakes situations. Rachel Viscomi who teaches Harvard’s “Lawyer as Facilitator” class to law students finds instructive Brené Brown’s vulnerability motto in helping others learning to be genuinely present in these situations:

“Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Stand your sacred ground.”

One barrier to effective listening can be our discomfort with our own internal emotions or those that others are expressing to us. Instead of being able to focus on the other person, we become distracted internally or shut down. This lesson of leaning in to the discomfort, which I learned in my mediation training years ago, is a key piece in the internal work necessary to be an effective and skillful listener.

To conclude, in this increasingly polarized world, augmenting lawyers’ skillset to both lead and participate in political dialogue is an incredibly important effort. It harkens to Professor Anthony’s Kronman’s “lawyer-statesman ideal”—that he believed to be failing—where the lawyer possesses qualities such a great practical wisdom, sympathy for others, and a devotion to the public good.

Kudos to the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinic for responding to society’s needs and keeping this ideal alive.

Additional resources:

Anthony Kronman, The Lost Lawyer: Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession (Harvard University Press, 1995).

Peter Elbow, “Methodological Doubting and Believing: Contraries in Inquiry,” in Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program’s Blog

Access to Harvard Law School’s Police-Community Dialogue Case Study (fee based)

Dispute resolutionMediation

Stuck in the Middle with Everyone

DSC_0866-Version-2-258x300Thanks to Lainey Feingold for this guest post. Lainey is an author and disability civil rights lawyer. Her book, Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, was published by the Dispute Resolution Section of the American Bar Association in 2016.  She is the 2017 individual recipient of the Section’s John W. Cooley Lawyer as Problem Solver Award.

Later this week I will be presenting at the annual conference of the Dispute Resolution Section of the ABA. The Section published my book last year and I’m excited to be sharing my ideas and meeting and learning from leaders in the field.

Many of those I’ll meet are professional neutrals—private mediators and arbitrators or court-based neutrals.  Many others are academics, teaching the next generation of lawyers how to be collaborative amidst the conflict-based culture of our profession.

I’m not any of those things.

I’m a disability civil rights lawyer who represents blind people seeking access to technology and information.  Before I became a disability rights lawyer over 25 years ago I represented labor unions and women and minorities in civil rights employment cases.  I’ve never been a neutral.  Never been in the middle.

Or have I?

Advocate as Peacemaker

For the past two decades, my clients, co-counsel, and I have negotiated national accessibility agreements with large organizations like Bank of America, Walmart, Major League Baseball, and the City and County of San Francisco.  Enforcing rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws, we reached these agreements without any lawsuits on file, using a dispute resolution process called Structured Negotiation.

Structured Negotiation, the subject of my book, gives parties the tools to talk—and listen—directly to each other.  Third-party help from a mediator can integrate well with the process, but is not required.  In close to 75 cases I’ve negotiated with Structured Negotiation (and without lawsuits), I’ve called upon a mediator just a handful of times.

In all my cases I was, metaphorically, on one side of the table with my clients.  But over time, I discovered the table was round.

9.28-StructuredNegotiations_CV-200x300In writing my book about Structured Negotiation I was introduced to a book that proved crucial to my thinking about the work my clients and I had done for two decades:  Bringing Peace into the Room: How the Personal Qualities of the Mediator Impact the Process of Conflict Resolution edited by Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman.

The book explores the qualities that allow mediators to “bring peace into the room.” Although I’ve never been a neutral “in the middle,” it struck me that lawyers practicing Structured Negotiation also “bring peace into the room.” Reading the essays in Bowling and Hoffman’s book I realized that “bringing peace” and being a strong advocate are not mutually exclusive.

To the contrary, being a peacemaker can serve the advocate’s goals just as it serves the mediator’s.

Understanding that participants in Structured Negotiation are peacemakers gave me new insight on the process my colleagues and I had nurtured since our first cases on accessible banking services in the 1990s.

And a new understanding of the possibility of the middle.

The middle is not a mythic center, but a place of common ground

Perhaps the “middle” is not only a place for a skilled neutral seeking compromise from reluctant advocates.  Instead, maybe the “middle” is the common ground all parties seek in a dispute.  As an advocate, my role is to help the parties get there, never losing sight of my clients’ goals.

Looked at in this new way, the middle is not a precise center point between two opposing views.  When my blind clients needed ATMs that talk so they could use them independently, the middle had Talking ATMs, although my clients may have compromised on the timing of particular features.

It was the same during Structured Negotiation with the nation’s largest pharmacy chains for prescription labels that talk, so blind people can safely take medication. As an advocate in Structured Negotiation, my job was to convince our negotiating partners in the pharmacy industry that the middle has talking labels.

The elements of Structured Negotiation made that convincing possible.  An opening letter that invites participation instead of demanding.  Collaborative meetings instead of one-sided, often bullying depositions.  Relationships that emphasize trust instead of distrust; patience instead of its opposite.

Of course, sometimes there is no middle, no common ground.  Sometimes collaborative peacemaking must step aside for a judge’s order. In the new political reality of Muslim bans, attacks on public schools, and threats to freedoms of every sort, traditional litigation has already proven an indispensable tool.  And it always has been.  But it is not the only tool in the advocate’s toolbox.  Peacemaking in its various forms is in there too.

Fear keeps people from common ground; listening gets them there

In my years of negotiating without lawsuits, I have seen fear as a key obstacle in an advocate’s ability to be a peacemaker. In my cases about website and mobile app accessibility, fear that the law will change, technology won’t work, or the cost will be too high are common.  In other fields the fears will be different but the tools to dissolve those fears are the same.  Talk openly.  Listen carefully. Don’t make the lawyerly mistake of assuming the ‘other side’ is hiding the ball or withholding the truth.  Provide a forum for clients to get to know each other.  Show don’t tell.

I’ve seen firsthand that helping everyone around the table get past fear is not reserved for a neutral positioned between opposing parties.  It is the job of the peacemaking advocate as well.


All this leads me back to this week’s ABA conference this week.  It reminds me to listen carefully to the words of the traditional peacemakers—the private and court-based neutrals—and to the law professors and clinical directors.  I know they will be helpful to my clients and to me as we continue to be the best advocates we can be, seeking a middle that works for everyone. 


Visit Lainey’s website or follow her on Twitter for more information. The title of this piece came from the theme song of her favorite TV show, Grace and Frankie. The song was written by the Stealers Wheel and covered for the show by Grace Potter.

 

Law schoolLaw school prepLegal educationLegal skillsLegal writing

Let the ice cube melt

The other day I had to have my eyes dilated. As they slowly came back into focus, I tested them on this week’s issue of The New Yorker. One of the essays focused on Allison Janney, currently starring on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation.” Janney’s character in the play owns a Kandinsky (Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists of the early 20th Century), and in the New Yorker essay Janney was viewing a Kandinsky at the Guggenheim as she gave the interview:

On her phone, she pulled up a Kandinsky quote from the play: “It is clear that the choice of object that is one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” She grimaced. “A sentence like that is so hard to understand,” she said. “It’s like an ice cube that hasn’t melted. That’s the way my father used to talk about learning the piano or learning a language. He said, ‘It’ll melt, just give it time.'”

Kandinsky’s actual quote seemed like a legal writing professor’s dream, in terms of editing issues to attack:

  • throat-clearing language (“It is clear that…”)
  • a gaggle of prepositional phrases (“of…of…in…of…by…in…”)
  • passive voice, of course (“must be decided only by…”)

But underneath the verbiage is the artist’s essential concept. How could that wordy sentence be rewritten without changing the concept? I came up with the following:

“The artist must decide on elements in the harmony of form only by seeking a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”

This edit cuts 10 words. Is it better? Even though it reflects standard writing edits, it changed some of the original. Most obviously, obliterating the passive means adding an actor. But maybe Kandinsky wanted to hide “the artist” by using the passive. The most concrete thing in the whole sentence is the last thought—“a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” Using abstract, passive, verbose language leading up to the final culminating moment—“the human soul”—is itself a form of verbal artistry.

This conceptual verbal artistry is at home and welcome in art-theory discourse, not so much in legal writing. The values of plain language and efficient writing have little use for a quote like “It is clear that the choice of objects . . . blah blah blah.”

So after reading Kandinsky’s quote in the essay, I was ready to move on to another portion of the magazine. But luckily, I finished the paragraph, catching Allison Janney’s wonderful turn of phrase quoted from her father:

“It’ll melt, just give it time.”

I think she meant that after effort and thought by the person approaching this sentence, the sequence of words will break down. They will “melt” into meaning in the person’s mind. The sentence itself doesn’t change; after all, that’s what Kandinsky meant for it to say. But the person encountering the sentence can melt it in their own mind so it’s not so rigid and foreboding.

How does this melting occur? As Janney’s father advised her, through time and patience. Not through focused effort directly lasered onto the ice cube. An ice cube melts effortlessly through the passage of time.

This ice-cube metaphor seems to me a wonderful metaphor for learning the law as well. For new law students faced with old cases and new concepts in arcane and twisted language, at times the only logical reaction is to grimace—just as Janney did when she read the Kandinsky quote. And of course you can apply techniques, tips, and tricks (as shown earlier in this post) to break down what you hear and read into something you can actually understand and use.

But really, ultimately the only valid long-term strategy is letting the ice cube melt. It melts slowly and imperceptibly. But then, at some point, something has happened. You can speak the language, and you can play the instrument. The ice cube has melted. You are thinking like a lawyer.

 

 

Clinical legal educationLaw school skills competitionsLegal communicationLegal educationLegal skills

Postscript on “um”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of moderating a Facebook chat on Rutgers law professor Barbara Gotthelf’s article The Lawyer’s Guide to “Um.” She published it in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD (for which, full disclosure, I’m a social media editor.) The Facebook chat, available here in LC&R’s ongoing Discussion Group, was a chance to explore and, in some cases, push back on her unexpected thesis:

Lawyers who speak before courts, clients, and other discerning audiences should know how fillers function to communicate information; they should understand that the actual effects of fillers on listeners may be less dire than imagined and may even be beneficial under some circumstances.

More specifically, Gotthelf shows in the paper how listeners comprehend speech better when it contains some discourse markers and “fillers” (also known more favorably as “planners”) such as “um.” Taking a text and reading it out loud perfectly, with no fillers, is less effective for speakers  than inserting some speech cues—including, yes, “um.”  Use of fillers such as “um” can signal delay while processing a thought, but can also preserve one’s “turn” to talk, attract attention, or actually help emphasize a point.

Building off of Gotthelf’s paper, the most heated part of the Facebook Discussion, if you can use “heated” to describe a respectful group of people who appear to care very much about the topic as well as one another, concerned whether to explicitly call students out on using “um.” Professor Gotthelf’s strongly held belief is NOT to point them out early in a student’s preparation cycle:

Many of my students begin the semester with annoying habits. Umms, giggling, hair twirling. It’s early nerves. That stuff melts away on its own as the students gain confidence from practicing and thinking about their arguments.

In that sense, Gotthelf said, “ums” are caused by natural unpreparedness, which can be cured naturally as well, by substantive preparation. Georgia Tech professor Brian Larson uses the opposite approach:

I DO point them out. In fact, we count each other’s (I subject myself to video as well) ums and uhs per minute in presentation videos (undergrad presentation class). We do so to draw attention to something that many audiences find annoying. I also draw attention to the fact that as a very experienced public speaker, I still average 4.5 UPM (ums per minute). Thus, there is no point freaking out about a few ums/uhs. Most of them start the semester at 12-15 ums per minute and are down below 8 by end of semester.

This debate is important because, as Gotthelf writes in the paper, there are two causes for uttering “um”: (1) task complexity and (2) task concern. Basically when a task is more complex and more vocabulary options to describe a single idea, the speaker is more likely to say “um.” And—in a painful but all-too-understandable irony—being self-conscious about speaking makes a speaker say “um” more. Which of course leads others to comment on the speaker’s use of “um” as a problem to fix, leading to even more self-consciousness.

Although there was disagreement about whether to be explicit in addressing “um,” the discussion participants seemed to agree that obsessively fixating on “um” is a mistake. As Gotthelf noted in explaining why people hate “um” so much, it’s partly because “um” is simple:

It’s easy and superficial to focus on things like “um.” It’s much harder to evaluate the content of what someone is saying.

She also noted in the paper that historically—in the classical glory days of spoken rhetoric—no one cared about “um.” Only with playback on radio and TV did “um” become a major perceived problem. And now a distaste for “um” has entered the popular view of what good speaking is:

I think people just accept the conventional wisdom about “um” and don’t dig deeper. So that conventional wisdom gets repeated and repeated and becomes cemented.

Still professors have to prepare students for the world that is, not the world we wish for. Thus some thoughtful approach to helping students avoid excessively distracting “ums” was a common theme—even if that means rigorously never mentioning “um” at all.

 

Clinical legal educationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLaw practiceLegal communication

Teamwork for lawyers

The thing I’ve most wanted to share here in recent months has been “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” published in the New York Times Magazine’s recent Work Issue. Building perfect teams—or at least more effective ones—is pretty important for the legal profession. For law firms, the complexity of many legal matters demands collaborative work. Yet client teams—and other types of teams such as deal teams and trial teams—are more likely to fail without a good understanding of team dynamics. And “law students baulk at the idea of group work.”

 

To understand why some of its teams performed better than others, Google launched a large study. At first no patterns emerged. Eventually, the key issue was something a bit more abstract than any specific metric. The issue was “group norms”:

Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound.

The impact of group norms on team performance was critical. It could make a team of individually “average” performers out-perform other groups. And it could make a team of individual rock stars perform poorly.

So if effective teams could be built upon consensus of any type—either to argue all the time or to build consensus all the time—then is there really any content to the idea of effective group norms? Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:

Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.

The broader impact of these two traits is that team members felt “psychological safety.” The New York Times article cited a study by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson describing psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

This article and the concepts it describes should, in my view, be required reading for any law school activity based on teams. It seems like a pretty good idea for law-firm managers as well. The lead researcher on Google’s Project Aristotle study became interested in the topic while attending graduate business school. She had one team that didn’t click, didn’t exactly fail but also didn’t prosper, and didn’t stick together for future projects. And she had another team that clicked and succeeded in competitive environments even though the group dynamics didn’t feel internally competitive.

Law students who’ve done any sort of group work and lawyers working collaboratively have similar stories. This article helps to explain why these teams end up the way they do. And it begins to address even more difficult questions about taking steps to create effective team dynamics from the outset and to make existing teams more effective.

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLeadershipPeople skills

Mindful interactions with colleagues

Mindfulness and listening go together in a lot of ways, some obvious and some subtle. A recent HBR Blog post, “See Colleagues as They Are, Not as They Were,” challenged readers to be more mindful in working with colleagues, especially longtime colleagues.

The post defines mindfulness as “noticing what is happening in the present moment, without judgment.” And thus the post raised the question: when we interact with colleagues, are we present and mindful of who they are now? Or are we substituting our own mental shortcuts of who they were and what they’ve done in the past? The post encourages readers to “See your colleague as they are today, not how you remember them from yesterday”:

[A]s an experiment, simply notice your colleague afresh. How do they look today? What is their tone of voice? What are their facial expressions? Are they really saying the same old stuff, or is there something new to be heard that you could notice and appreciate?

Noticing colleagues afresh is a challenge. This is partly general human nature: “By the time we have worked with someone for a few months or years, we have developed expectations for what they will say and do.” It’s always been that way, of course.

The ever-present role of email only exacerbates these expectations. The author, Duncan Coombs, describes his findings that email communications reinforce and solidify expectations about coworkers:

I’ve previously written with my good friend and colleague, Darren Good, about the “flash images” we form about people when we see their names in our inboxes. This flash image, based on past experiences, happens before you even read the content of the email, and then influences the way we read the email. While this is a normal part of brain functioning, it has a potentially adverse impact when our negative lens leads to negative interpretations.

I believe the legal workplace suffers from these issues as much as any other industry, and maybe more so (at least in law firms).

An associate does good work, and she builds the “halo effect” around everything she does—whether the work remains stellar or not. Another associate produces a weak assignment or two, and she her billables just start fading away. The effect cuts the other way too: Associates may develop positive expectations about working with a particular partner, which lead them to enjoy the work and do it well. Conversely some partners may engender a sense of existential dread among associates prodded onto their teams. The same effect influences relationships with paralegals, administrative support staff, and legal professionals throughout the firm. And the e-mail “flash image” reinforces all of the above.

Many would say this is far from a problem; in fact it is (a) reality and (b) a good thing.

In a law firm, an associate builds her reputation—for better or worse. Keith Lee wrote about the difference in personal brand (what you say about yourself) and reputation (what others say about you) . The work inside a law firm flows toward the individual lawyers with strong reputations, and away from others. Individual lawyers’ reputations are important because they contribute to (or detract from) the overall health of the law firm.

This is true in any business of course, but the competitive reality of law practice and the pessimistic mindset of lawyers may exacerbate it. As one lawyer stated to Law360 in giving advice and admonitions to new associates, “what takes years and hard work to build can be lost in a second with one bad decision or lapse of judgment.”

I don’t think the HBR post is arguing against a lawyer’s earned reputation and its deserved effects. Nor am I, here in this post.

I think the post is digging into the process of how a reputation happens in the first place. If a reputation comes about from non-mindful, even lazy mental shortcuts of others based on insufficient, incomplete, or inaccurate information, reputation is not only not a good thing but actually bad or at least far from optimal. Consequences that come to mind include frustrated individual working relationships that result in less accurate information, less effective distributions of work, wastefully “writing off” legal professionals despite achievements and potential, and shrinking or illusory opportunities for professional development.

Is working with someone for “a few months” enough to accurately define that person’s capabilities and, accordingly, their reputation? Even if a working relationship has lasted years, could a person actually change?

These questions open up numerous discussions on assessment and evaluation, as well as a “growth” or “fixed” mindset about human capacity, with implications too big for one post. At the individual level, the HBR post goes on to some positive recommendations for interacting more mindfully with colleagues:

As an experiment, consciously seek to notice something positive about the person. What is one thing about this person that you appreciate? What is one thing they say that is helpful? What is their contribution to the organization? What is their single greatest strength? Focus on that and pay total attention to that one thing. Hold that focus and make that your first “foothold” on the path to an improved relationship.

These are recommendations that some skeptical lawyers may find naive. Supervisors who complete and sign semi-annual evaluations simply don’t need to make this effort. There’s a path of less resistance: directing their work and their time to other associates and legal professionals where the positive reactions come more easily and naturally. (Thus it’s very good advice for new attorneys to treat partners like clients from day one, and try to avoid this situation in the first place.)

But for attorneys and legal professionals who are committed to—or stuck in—working arrangement for some time, this positive advice may be helpful to frame more mindful, constructive interactions.


For more on mindfulness, see the work of Jeena Cho. Her book, The Anxious Lawyer, will be coming out this year. Her course on “Better Lawyering through Mindfulness” touches on mindful listening and many other topics. She writes for Above the Law.

This article originally from the Vermont Bar Journal and now posted on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website also touches on themes of mindfulness in interacting with others.

Emotional intelligenceLaw firm marketingLaw practiceLegal communicationPeople skills

Resolution: Delight them

Delight your clients.

That’s a good New Year’s Resolution for lawyers, right?

It’s an entrenched, almost clichéd piece of general business advice. But should lawyers try to delight their clients? It seems like the answer should be “of course!!” But what does that even mean?

A recent reference to delighting the client prompted this post, “3 Vital Mindsets for Creating Impact for the Legal Industry” by Seyfarth Shaw’s Laura Maecthlen on Medium. She reflected back on her hectic law practice in the final month of 2015, when she wasn’t thinking broadly about the legal industry but rather working away with depositions, negotiations, and a lot of detailed, focused, specifically client-centered work.

This day-to-day level of law practice, Maecthlen suggested, is an under-appreciated source of ideas about legal innovation. Those ideas should come not only from large-scale abstract thinking about the legal industry, but also from “the everyday activities of working lawyers . . . in the trenches of our legal system every day.” As she wrote,

It is in this spacepersonal, one-on-one and face-to-facethat we create real change for ourselves and each other.

And this observation—essentially, “small is the new big”—leads to the question of delight:

With all the talk of innovation in our industry, a person could easily lose track of the real goal of innovation, which is to create positive impact. If you stop to consider what we as practitioners are trying to accomplish, you realize it’s simple: higher-value client solutions aimed to delight our clients. Innovation is only one means to achieve this.

What do others say about delighting clients in the legal industry?

On a positive note, legal marketer Merrilyn Astin Tarlton advised lawyers to surprise and delight their clients in several ways. Drop in on their clients, free of charge, and learn more about their business. (This is common but excellent advice.) Give compliments. Help clients see patterns and prevent those patterns from occurring, such as better training and policies to reduce a pattern of lawsuits. Over-deliver and deliver early, rather than setting suggested deadlines and then meeting them just barely or missing them. Say thank you, often.

But the delight concept often comes wrapped in some more ominous tones.

Non-delighted clients are less likely to be long-term clients, and many lawyers are deluded about their clients’ level of delight. That was a theme developed by lawyer and and knowledge-management consultant V. Mary Abraham interviewed legal leadership consultant Susan Hackett. The post is “Focus on Clients; If You Delight Them They Will Stay.” Hackett’s work shows that 85 percent of outside counsel give themselves an “A” for their work, but only 35 percent of in-house counsel would in fact recommend their outside counsel to other clients.

What can lawyers do to climb into that 35 percent—to get that “A” grade and make the client “fall in love” with their services? One big step has to do with listening, with two necessary sub-parts to make it work. Part one is about asking meaningful questions of clients:

The very best way to deliver value to each client you serve is simply to ask them what it is that they value, what it is that you’re doing right or could do better, what it is that other lawyers or service providers offer them that makes them pleased with the service, and how it is that you personally could improve.  Ask it in person, ask it in surveys, ask it outside the course of matters, ask it during the matters on which you’re serving. Saying once a year over dinner, `so how are we doing?’ is going to get an answer as specific as `just great.’  Trust me, that’s not the feedback you need.

And part two is about listening to and doing something about that feedback:

Asking for feedback is not the same thing as acting on it.  Too many of us ask for feedback and then we sit back and `admire’ (or ignore) the results. Instead, we need to take actions that allow us to improve from the feedback.  If you receive positive feedback, look for ways to apply the principles underlying your success to other kinds of work. At a minimum, when the evaluations relate to performance, include them in the performance reviews of those involved. After all, if lawyers’ compensation and advancement are only tied to the number of hours they’ve billed, and not to how well they serve clients, we’re all in trouble.

Delight also came up in the context of “in-house counsel gripes” which is practically its own genre of posts on Law 360. Rich Baer, then of Qwest Communications and now Liberty Media, urged lawyers to borrow the delight aspiration from non-legal businesses:

When you’re thinking about client service, don’t think like a lawyer, think like the owner of a great restaurant or the manager of a wonderful resort and really strive to delight your client every time you’re dealing with them.”

While this statement itself is positive, the rest of the post (which quoted other in-house counsel as well) essentially bludgeoned the reader with what not to do. Don’t surprise the client, don’t max out bills, and don’t send 50-page memos when short e-mails can give the same information. (The post also quoted Baer criticizing outside counsel who fail to share a “simple thank you for the business”—the mirror-image of Tarlton’s advice to say thank you often.)

Thinking about what not to do brings us back to the business theory of whether delight should be a client service goal at all. If you search “delighting customers,” the top result is a Harvard Business Review piece urging the opposite: “Stop trying to delight your customers.”

The article argued that the vast majority of decisions are made not because someone is delighted and drawn to the amazing service of a business. Rather, these decisions are made because of being annoyed, put off, frustrated, and otherwise subject to terrible service. Customers have the impulse to “punish bad service” much more so than to “reward delightful service.” (This idea is rooted in psychological studies that “Bad Is Stronger than Good” previously discussed on the blog here.)

Therefore, the HBR piece argues, the better approach to customer satisfaction is not delight but “reducing their effort—the work they must do to get their problem solved.”

In her post on goals for 2016, Seyfarth Shaw’s Maecthlen was onto this as well. She urged finding clients’ “pain points” and making “process improvements” to address them. (This rhetoric is consistent with the legal project management movement that sometimes speaks in the language of delight.)

Addressing pain and process comes up in so many different ways. Many process improvements are substantive, like the suggestion above about recognizing and mitigating a pattern of small sporadic lawsuits. Of course the method of communication itself may be a pain point as well.

Here, as I write on a Friday afternoon, a small but specific example comes to mind. Some clients may not enjoy receiving a barrage of legal updates late Friday afternoon as lawyers clean and close their own inboxes. The lawyer may feel a sense of respite and reprieve, while the client now has a list of things to do just at the beginning of the weekend. Other clients may appreciate a regular consolidated end-of-the-week update. What is their preference?

Asking what they want and respecting that preference is not all that innovative. But, to paraphrase Laura Maechtlen, it’s this one-on-one and face-to-face work that can—perhaps—add up to a sense of delight.

 

 

 

Law schoolLegal educationPeople skills

Back to school means “what’s your learning style?”

The idea that each learner has an ideal learning style—that is, a style such as visual or aural or kinesthetic, in which they learn most effectively—remains unproven. Yet it appears to be wildly popular and naturally appealing to both teachers and students. The new school year seems like a hot zone for this idea to proliferate anew.

Before delving into the research on learning styles, let’s preempt some backlash. Of course different students have different strengths and weaknesses, and of course different students have different preferences and habits for studying and learning. That’s not the problem.

What remains unproven is that a given person learns “best” in a particular learning style that is different from the way another person (with a different learning style) learns the same materialHere’s UVa education professor Daniel Willingham summarizing his critique of learning styles as a theory. Here’s another article by two psychology professors summing up the studies finding no support for learning styles, including one that tested medical students.  A frequently cited 2008 study by four education professors concluded  “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” 

Learning styles are so appealing and so omnipresent from preschool to graduate school that it can be hard to accept they are some sort of “myth.” A helpful illustration comes from neuroscientist Christian Jarnett in Wired Magazine:

[A]lthough each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Similarly, studying sculpture is not done best by reading long texts describing said sculpture, as pointed out this helpful and balanced piece from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Christian Jarnett goes on to argue that adhering to learning styles as a teaching method is not just a benign misconception but actively harmful. It encourages teachers and learners to direct their teaching toward existing areas of strength, given that “style” may function as a proxy for existing ability and preference. Dan Willingham would also say that mixing teaching styles in the interest of meeting different learning styles in a group may also be harmful, or at least not as beneficial as believed, if doing so works to the detriment of teaching the particular subject matter in the most appropriate way.

This is where listening comes in. When people are surveyed to try to determine their dominant learning style (or preference), listening—i.e. auditory learning—does not tend to rank as a top choice. Legal educator M.H. Sam Jacobson suggested a ranking for law students as learners: most law students report being verbal learners (learning by reading), followed by the next-most populous group of visual learners, followed by oral learners (learning by talking) and only then by auditory learners who learn by listening.

And because auditory learning is relatively unpopular, teaching to preferred learning styles could effectively hurt students’ listening skills even more. Under this theory, if a law student feels most comfortable as a visual or verbal learner, should that student thus learn to represent clients by looking at photographs of clients and reading scripts of interviews with clients? Clinics and externships offer incredible opportunities to interview clients, to take notes, to negotiate, to go to court—to do a lot of things that don’t neatly fit into the most popular categories.

It seems unlikely that an idea about learning styles would dissuade someone from clinic work. What I’m more concerned about is the way learning styles might subtly affect law students’ habits and beliefs: A law student might gain the notion he or she learns particularly well by reading and visuals, more so than by listening, and thus steer her way of thinking and studying towards words and images and away from talking and listening. Or struggle with taking notes in class or interviewing a client, and conclude that part of the reason is a learning style other than auditory.

Law students need to develop all modalities to be effective practitioners. . . . [R]egardless of whether one self-identifies as a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile learner, lawyers regularly use each of those modalities in practice. They process information by reading and synthesizing legal authority and documents obtained during discovery, for example, and act on oral directives from clients, judges, and colleagues.

This is from an excellent, in-depth, and critical yet constructive exploration of learning styles in legal education, Aïda Alaka’s article Learning Styles: What Difference Do the Differences Make?, 5 Charleston L. Rev. 133 (2011). Alaka carefully explores other frameworks for learning styles besides the “visual-aural-kinesthetic” model which is the main focus of this post. She ultimately concludes with the pragmatic notion that teaching material in a variety of ways beyond (1) assigning cases and (2) employing the Socratic method is certainly a good thing. (Hear, hear!)

She also suggests that while listening should not be neglected, reading will remain the most critical skill:

[R]ecent empirical studies suggest that developing law students’ critical reading skills and literacy are paramount to successful law school performance. Regardless of desire or preference, law students should understand that learning through reading is, and is likely to remain, the principle method by which they will absorb new information in law school and beyond.

In reading for this post, I came across a completely different type model formulated by educator Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do:

  • Surface learners “do as little as possible to get by”
  • Strategic learners “aim for top grades rather than true understanding”
  • Deep learners “leave college with a real, rich education”

Just on its face, this framework bears parallels to listening. Surface listeners may just take in the key points and miss information as well as subtle cues. Strategic listeners may deploy active listening and other techniques, but miss opportunities to follow up and dig because they seize conversational cues to begin talking again. Deep listeners make the most of precious face time spent with conversation partners, leaving the conversation with a “real, rich” sense of learning information and building relationships through their communication skills including listening.

I look forward to reading more about this framework and exploring how learners who may fit into each of these categories can enrich the way they learn, and especially the way they listen.

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Blogger’s note: People I greatly respect have written about and at times touted the benefits of teaching to individual learning styles. In fact I myself gave a 2006 presentation about using visual tools to teach legal writing, which I based partly on the idea of visual learners as a significant component of the law-student population. My post here does not in any way change my admiration for the scholars and educators who have studied learning theories including as learning styles in the quest to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.