Law-school roundup (fall-semester edition)

FullSizeRenderAs 2Ls and 3Ls return to the classroom and new law students start their journey, this is a good time to recap some of Listen Like a Lawyer’s posts especially for law students. These are in order below from before law school to 1L and beyond. You can also see posts in reverse chronological order by searching the blog category “law school.”

Please share ideas for additional posts related to listening in law school. And good luck to law students (and law professors) starting a new school year now.

Law-school prep for listening skills

Listening 101 for law students 

The note-taking method that worked for me (link to guest post on The Girls’ Guide to Law School)

An app for legal reading and legal writing

Listening checkup for 1Ls (halfway through first semester)

What are the core professional qualities of lawyers? 

Guest post on externships

Oral argument

“Listening” to the legal job market 

Interview skills and listening

Callback interviewing

Observing the courtroom

Last but not least: Graduation reflection

And one more:  What it sounded like at the bar exam

New proof about “sounding smart”

Every time a lawyer communications, that lawyer must choose not only what to say but how to say it—in person, phone, e-mail, or something else.

Speaking and listening obviously take longer and may seem inefficient. Writing (such as e-mail) can reach a group of people instantly and allow them to access the information at a convenient time, also creating a record all parties can use and refer to later.

Courtesy Flickr/Horia Varlan/CC by 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/Horia Varlan/CC by 2.0

But e-mail just isn’t as accurate at conveying meaning.* Anyone who has had an e-mail misunderstanding has experienced what the academic research shows:

Because of the paralinguistic cues in voice, such as intonation, cadence, and amplitude, observers who hear communicators guess their actual thoughts and feelings more accurately than observers who read the exact same words in text.

This is just the background in a new study conducted by Professor Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley at the Booth School of Business (University of Chicago) (sub req’d for link). There’s actually another surprising disadvantage of writing, compared with speaking the same material to a listener.

In that study, MBA students prepared pitches on why they should be hired, and then delivered them either orally or in writing. The results were pronounced:

[E]valuators rated a candidate as more competent, thoughtful, and intelligent when they heard a pitch rather than read it and, as a result, had a more favorable impression of the candidate and were more interested in hiring the candidate.

Why is this? It has to do with cues provided by the voice, and heard by the listener—cues that are lacking in writing. The study summed up the effect:

The words that come out of a person’s mouth convey the presence of a thoughtful mind more clearly than the words typed by a person’s hands—even when those words are identical. Across five experiments, evaluators who listened to job pitches were consistently more interested in hiring the candidates than were evaluators who read identical pitches. A person’s voice communicates not only the content of his or her thinking, but also the humanlike capacity for thinking.

The effect persisted whether the written material was prepared for purposes of reading or speaking. It persisted in one form or another for “evaluators” drawn from a general audience at a Chicago museum as well as from recruiters at Fortune 500 companies. The study also asked trained actors to deliver the pitches in another sub-set of the study to glean whether professional voice skills were the deciding factor. They weren’t.

In an article on the study—”The Mouth Is Mightier than the Pen”—the New York Times pointed out that study authors did not control for the quality of the writing itself. Study author Dr. Epley told the Times he assumed the MBA students were “better-than-average” writers, given that they were enrolled at a top business school. But the study’s findings turned out to be greatly surprising to the students themselves: responses to a survey question showed they did not expect their spoken pitches to be so much more powerful in conveying intellect.

The study does not indicate it would be “impossible for a talented writer to overcome the limitations of text alone.” Rather, the study participants did not predict or expect that voice would provide such an advantage, and thus in their written pitches did not spontaneously try to overcome any deficit from that communication medium.

The study has a number of implications, for lawyers and anyone who conducts business in a variety of media—or anyone who cares about making an impression about their intellect:

[T]ext-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer or, perhaps, close a deal.

* Among e-mail’s other well-documented disadvantages such as creating a sort of tyranny of distraction.

Listening and bar-exam prep

Studying for the bar exam. No one enjoys it and no one wants to repeat the experience. My question for this post is relevant to anyone taking a bar-exam prep class live or through video or audio: How do bar-exam students listen most effectively in studying for the bar? This post explores how bar takers can listen with power—bar-exam-taking power.

Knowledge Base Before Listening

Creative Commons/Philip Larson
Creative Commons/Philip Larson

The sad truth is that you can learn something a lot better when you already know it—or at least when you already know something about what you’re supposed to be learning. The less you know about a subject, the harder it is to listen and pay attention to anyone talking about that subject. The good bar-prep companies certainly know this and try to make the material entertaining and easy to follow.

But you can take some of your own steps before a lecture. Advance prep could provide more of a framework for listening to the bar lecture:

  • Look at a bar study guide for a quick outline of the topic.
  • Look at the table of contents of a case book on the topic.
  • If the topic is statutory, skim the statutory outline for that area of law your state.
  • Make diagrams of the topic or find a diagram you can use to help think about what you’re going to hear. Recopying the diagram in your own hand will be more powerful than just looking at diagrams.
  • Google the topic and find some real-world scenarios. Learning how this area of law works in the world could motive more focused listening.
  • Look at a few bar-exam questions that ask questions on the topic. Not only could this build some knowledge by showing you how the issues might arise in a quasi-real-world situation, but it could also tap into a pretty powerful motivator of attention: FEAR.

Hearing/Stimulus and Awareness

Listening is not the same thing as hearing, but hearing is necessary to listening. Therefore the most obvious thing to say here is to make sure you are hearing and paying attention to the lecture. Don’t half-listen during the bar-exam lectures, assuming you’ll go over it in your notes later. Giving only “continuous partial attention” to the scintillating lecture on commercial paper means you’re already introducing an inefficiency into your bar preparation.

And here I’m going to get controversial for a moment. Please do not allow yourself to tune out the lecture by telling yourself “I’m not an auditory learner. I learn better with pictures/charts/emojis/etc.” The idea that people have a preferred “learning style” is under serious attack. Howard Garner, the widely credited source of “multiple intelligences” has publicly asked educators to stop equating them with “learning styles.”

People may prefer to learn a certain way, but that does not mean they actually do learn better that way; critics say the idea of “learning styles” is intuitively appealing but lacking in reliable proof. That controversy can’t be resolved here, and it doesn’t need to be. Just don’t use the idea of learning styles as an excuse to listen with less than full attention. Test-takers should take full advantage of different ways to learn from traditional lectures to charting to flash cards to a surprising option you can read about at the end of this post.

And one more note about the initial hearing part: I really don’t think it will work to listen to bar-prep audio recordings on a speeded-up pace. (Do experts recommend this idea?) It seems you want some pauses in between the information to give your  mind time to actually process it. Those pauses may frustrate the bored or distracted mind (more on this in a future post). But your goal in studying for the bar is not to be entertained every second. It’s to pass the d*mn bar.


The prevalent models of the listening process all include a variety of hidden intellectual functions such as interpreting, translating, understanding, and evaluating.

One trick to true understanding is knowing whether you in fact understand. But the Dunning-Kruger effect seems alive and well across every domain—meaning unprepared bar takers may be not only unprepared but also unable to know just how unprepared they are.

Stated more constructively, try to monitor your own understanding while listening, and afterwards via practice exams. Lots of them. In a perfect world, we all understand everything the first time it passes our ears. But it’s not a perfect world, and the next best thing is to know something is important and also to know you’re not getting it. You might know it right then during the lecture, or later after bombing a practice exam. But then you can do something about the lack of understanding.


Remembering (at least for the short term) is part of listening, and part of overall cognitive functioning. And remembering details—especially details that aren’t inherently interesting—is difficult.

To prepare for a high-pressure memorization test, you want to get the information “set” in your long-term memory for use on the bar. This doesn’t mean remembering it forever, but long-term memory is the right term. Short-term or working memory only holds information for about 30 seconds tops, and that’s not good enough.  

To pass information to long-term memory, you have to bring it up and use it and repeatedly pass it back through your working memory. That means you can expect to do a lot of flash cards, practice exams, and other active study techniques to help this process. Active studying supplements the listening process and reinforces the learning.

But is there anything bar students can do at the moment of listening to make the most of that listening moment, maximizing their memory for later?

Here the power of the eye may help supplement the power of the ear. As you listen to the lecture, try diagramming what you learn. Make a visual. Make a chart. Draw a picture of each element of the test. Imagine a ridiculous scenario with a clown using commercial paper in some memorable fashion.

If you’re really into exotic yet powerful memory techniques, try building a “Memory Palace” and associating different pieces of information with locations in your memory palace. The Bar Association of San Francisco wrote about this concept hereSolo Practice University wrote about it here. I haven’t tried it, but I did enjoy the book Moonwalking with Einstein, which is about the same technique and if nothing else, would be an entertaining post-bar-exam read.

Closely related to this process of remembering is how you take notes. Let me say this now and be very clear:

Do not take notes on your laptop. 

It is growing clearer and clearer (like here and here and here) that students remember material better when they take notes by hand, as in using handwriting on a piece of paper. This is hard pill for many law students to swallow because it cuts against years of habit. Maybe a more realistic recommendation is this: Don’t take notes on your laptop by default, just because you may have done so throughout law school. There is pretty good evidence that taking notes by hand is at least as good if not better than taking notes on a laptop. Try it. Maybe you’ll like it.


Bar lectures are not a deep Socratic exploration of legal theory and jurisprudence. You don’t need to respond to a bar-exam lecture by lining up to pose some theoretical responses and analytical challenges to the material. (Really, please don’t.) As many bar-exam prep experts advise: nobody gets a special reward for an “A” on the bar exam.

Likewise, bar lectures do not require an emotional, empathetic, caring reaction. Really, it may be the most antisocial learning environments of all time.

What, then, is the proper response for a listener?

The response is the studying. The flash cards. The practice essays. Clarification and deeper study of certain problem areas. Eventually, the response is what you do with the information on the exam.

One bar prep source suggests that the #1 mistake is “passive studying.” Don’t go back and half-listen again. Study actively and aggressively to learn and retain the information. Use all the ways to learn, from lectures to diagrams to reading text to taking practice tests. Move around to different study locations to help you remember the material more, rather than staying in one comfortable place. 

And if you really need a change of pace, put in the earbuds and dance. Or at least think about dancing while taking in these “Bar Exam Study Songs.” (HT Lee Burgess of Bar Exam Toolbox for the review.) It’s an unexpected and unorthodox way to incorporate more listening into your bar-exam study routine—but why not?

Lastly, don’t forget the final step of the listening process, as formulated in the Worthington/Fitch-Hauser model:

“Stay Connected and Motivated.”

And good luck to all.

Bar-exam prep is a well-developed industry of its own, with many highly experienced and skillful tutors and prep resources. I’d love to hear from bar-exam prep experts with their advice on listening during the prep process. And for bar-exam takers, what types of listening techniques have worked or not worked? What would you recommend to those studying right now? 

Teaching Success > Analyzing Failure

Why blog about listening? It drew me in because it’s different than legal writing—which I honestly love, and love to teach, but sometimes tire of, with its skirmishes in broader linguistic debates about two spaces after a period, commas outside quotation marks, and the indefinite singular pronoun, as well as the temptation to go negative.

Courtesy Flickr/Martin Fisch/CC BY-SA 2.0
Courtesy Flickr/Martin Fisch/CC BY-SA 2.0

Listening is among the softest of the soft skills, so soft it’s hard to perceive and even harder to measure. It’s not talked about as much as writing or speaking—or even the other “receptive” communication channel, reading—but I believe it has a huge impact on every aspect of law students’ and lawyers’ effectiveness, both real and perceived. If a law student gets every relevant fact from an externship client including important gaps in the client’s knowledge and then produces excellent notes for the supervising attorney, but the client does not feel heard, is that a successful interaction? How can law students and lawyers enhance their listening skills?

I hoped to mainly focus the blog on constructive ideas, as opposed to the “what not to do” method so prevalent in some conversations about legal writing. Yet soon as I launched the blog, the most common reaction was to parade out the listening failures:

“Your blog is called Listen Like a Lawyer? Oh, so you mean poorly and with preconceived ideas?”

Thus the temptation. It can be fun to write about bad examples of anything, whether listening or writing or any other skill. I had a little too much fun writing a Halloween post about “scary” listening here. And here’s a more serious post focusing on terrible listening. The attraction—and impact—of talking about failure is based on a larger disturbing reality:

[N]egative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impacts than positive ones.

This is from an article in the Harvard Business Review explaining Roy Baumeister’s paper “Bad Is Stronger than Good.”

Prevention is better than failure

The temptation to talk about any skill in terms of failure came immediately to mind when I read Ken Grady’s latest post at the Seyfarth Shaw Lean Consulting blog SeytLines, “On Teaching Lawyers to Succeed Rather than Fail.” His post focuses on critiquing the case method of law school, in which almost every fact pattern by definition represents a failure of the parties and lawyers to find a mutually beneficial solution and settle the case.

His critique is not unreasonable: why is that a good way to teach lawyers to solve problems? Actually Grady is less interested even in solving problems than in anticipating and preventing them. And he doesn’t think the case method is very good at this at all:

“[T]aken to an extreme and when used as the primary method of teaching students, [the case method] becomes a vicious circle keeping us trapped in a cycle of failure.”

Re-thinking the model to teach law students how to proactively work with clients to prevent legal problems turns out to be very difficult. Prevention is a lot harder to see than failure:

“Much of the best lawyering ever done was not recorded in case books or articles. It went unrecorded because that work prevented failure from happening. The lawyers who provided those services kept their clients out of trouble, kept costs down, and avoided burdens on society.”

Role-playing real situations is one way to get at preventative lawyering, as in the following example from Grady:

“A general counsel is faced with a new business model. She investigates the obvious legal risks of the model and does not find anything at odds with existing law. As far as she can tell the proposed business model is perfectly legal. But still, something does not seem right to her. She pushes further into the model. As she studies it, she realizes how it may conflict with evolving concepts in the law and societal trends. Today the model is perfectly legal, but in three to five years, it most likely will be problematic. Our general counsel could do nothing and leave any problem to the future. She could follow the maxim of make money today and let tomorrow bring whatever it may. Or, she could look for something to mitigate the risk.”

Problem-solving and leadership

Grady’s post “On Teaching Lawyers to Succeed Rather than Fail” reminds me a lot of Emory Law Professor Dorothy Brown’s recent article Law School Without Borders (PDF). In the article, she outlines an alternative approach to teaching law. She gives a case study problem solving and problem prevention for a hypothetical client who happens to be a “nationally known Southern-style celebrity chef” sued for race and sex discrimination. In the article, Brown walks through the possibilities for achieving success through proactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative lawyering. More broadly, she suggests what law schools can and should do to broaden their focus:

“A law school that incorporates more than just teaching students how to think like lawyers, but how to also solve problems and take a leadership role will graduate students better equipped to add value to their firms and clients on the first day. Emotional intelligence should not be underestimated. By emotional intelligence, I mean empathy, exercising good judgment, maturity, wisdom, common sense, and last, but not least, the ability to have difficult conversations successfully.”

Hear, Hear! to the idea of teaching leadership, emotional intelligence, and difficult conversations. The “law school without borders” Professor Brown describes is consistent with Ken Grady’s interest in teaching problem prevention through anticipatory lawyering. Their ideas both fit within and challenge the ongoing conversation about experiential learning in legal education, such as here.

Better listening by analyzing listening successes

This is a huge topic, but what we can do here is to bring the focus back to listening. From time to time, we can turn away from “10 Ways to Be Awful at Listening.” We can instead talk about “10 Ways Great Listening Helped Lawyers Serve Their Clients By Understanding and Avoiding Potential Disputes.” Here are some questions:

  • How have you seen lawyers use listening to successfully prevent and solve problems?
  • What did they do, specifically, that showed their listening?
  • How can proactive, preventative, powerful listening be a tool for lawyering success?
  • What are some ways to teach that kind of listening?

“Develop-in-place” for listening

This post is for people who don’t mind reading a bit of jargon from the world of training and professional development. It’s all about how we define effective listening and how lawyers can develop it on the job, with some implications for legal education as well.

The term “competency” is a term of art in educational and professional parlance. I like this definition: “measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors [that are] critical to successful job performance.” 

Listening is very difficult to observe and to measure. Listening is hard even to define. Professor Neil Hamilton recognized these difficulties in his foundational law-review article on listening, Effectiveness Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills:

One challenge in integrating a focus on improving listening

skills into the traditional law school curriculum, particularly the required

curriculum, is that it can be difficult to ascertain what “listening

skills” are. A failure to break down competence in a skill into component

parts can create confusion both for teachers, who need clear objectives

and assessment tools, and students, who need clear direction, thus

making it more difficult to integrate the skills into a curriculum.

Listening has received a variety of definitions from communication scholars, culminating in this from the International Listening Association: “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages”

This definition underscores the problem with measuring listening. How do you measure whether a person is “receiving” messages, much less “constructing meaning” from them? Responding is much easier to observe and assess. (Yet another reason “active listening” gets so much love; you really can know it when you see it because by definition it involves an observable behavior.)

But just because measuring listening—all its aspects—is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. An example worth studying comes from the Microsoft in Education program, which has undertaken the task of stating a broad range of Education Competencies for Teachers and School Leaders, including Listening Competences. (Also here are some on interpersonal skills.) The rest of this post focuses on these particular “Listening Competencies” and what lawyers might draw from some of their substance as well as the framework used to present them.

Tiers of listening from basic to expert

The Listening Competencies document begins with a rubric classifying listening skills into four tiers:

  • basic
  • intermediate
  • advanced
  • expert

An example of a basic listening skill is being attentive, and an expert listening skill is “making solid eye contact, intuitively absorbing the gist of the message.” A basic listening skill is being considerate of the opinions of others, and an expert skill is being able to accurately restate the opinions of others even when you disagree with them.

So this type of rubric is far from revolutionary but harder than it looks to develop. In the legal field, what do we consider basic and expert listening, and gradations of intermediate and advanced listening in between? The educators’ competencies do not adequately speak to the complex and contested situations lawyers find themselves dealing with; they would need to be developed and tailored significantly to describe the skills required by lawyers functioning in the real world and law students doing real-world experiential work.

There is a growing body of work in the area of articulating lawyering competencies, intensified by many factors such as the push for law schools to produce practice-ready graduates. The new book Building on Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World by Lisa Bliss et al. is an example of a very recent contribution. Listen Like a Lawyer will keep exploring the research, as well as talking to a variety of lawyers and law professors in order to revisit this question over the summer.

Develop-in-place assignments

In addition to the skill tiers, the Listening Competencies document also raised the idea of “part-time develop-in-place assignments.” This was not a term I had heard before, but the idea of a “develop-in-place assignment” seemed intriguing. Lawyers may prefer training opportunities that are more customized and active, with less loss of productivity than something like attending an all-day CLE.

So what does “develop-in-place” mean? From context, we know it is more than remedial training. For remedial needs, the Listening Competencies document has a separate section for “self-development remedies.” They include gems such as “keep your mouth closed” and “eliminate . . . . pencil drumming.” (There are more difficult items on the remediation list as well, such as “[l]isten to those who waste a lot of time, but try to help them.” How is that remedial?)

After the remedial section, the Listening Competencies document goes on to list ideas for “develop-in-place assignments.” The common thread is practical, hand-on training opportunities. They exist somewhere in between remedial and highly advanced. A few examples in the list include finding and learning from an expert; going to campus as a recruiter; and becoming someone’s mentor. The list also suggested making peace with an enemy or other person “you have disappointed, had trouble with, or don’t get along with.” The list also suggested going on a trip to a foreign country. (Yes, that would be a pretty awesome way to develop competencies! Sign me up for that one, please.)

The term “develop-in-place” appears not to be widely used beyond the Microsoft in Education competencies, but its basic meaning is confirmed by some excellent training materials from the Korn/Ferry training organization:

Develop-in-Place Assignments are job tasks that require application of certain competencies. Research shows that 70% of development happens on the job, and jobs differ in development power and in the competencies they address. You can’t always change jobs for development reasons alone, but there is almost always a develop-in-place assignment that you can select in your current job to address your development need.

This definition should appeal to lawyers in that it’s about doing an actual job task that also happens to develop skills or competencies—in other words, learning by doing. The idea that “there is almost always a develop-in-place assignment . . . in your current job” may ring true for many practicing lawyers. For example, new lawyers doing a lot of writing and research may seek out pro bono opportunities to work with clients more personally. (This isn’t a simple matter, and pro-bono work should be more than an opportunistic skill grab. But done correctly, it is a way to serve clients and the public and apply lawyering competencies.) Similarly, lawyers who work on a lot of individual, fact-intensive matters may seek time to write an article taking a broader perspective.

Expert lawyering requires so many different competencies, with listening being just one aspect of a broad picture combining intellectual, interpersonal, more broadly social, and practical skill sets. Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck may have the definitive set in their list of 26 lawyering effectiveness factors. Given this eclectic mix and the value of learning by doing, this concept of “develop-in-place assignments” seems like a pretty good idea for professional development.

Please share your thoughts on listening competencies for lawyers, and ways that lawyers could use “develop-in-place” assignments to practice and improve their listening skills.

Steal their listening

Keith Lee’s book The Marble and the Sculptor: From Law School to Law Practice (ABA 2013) is a bracing, honest, challenging compendium of advice for new lawyers. I would strongly recommend it to upper-level law students and new lawyers. (See also his blog, Associate’s Mind, as well as his columns in Above the Law.) One chapter in Keith’s book that caught my eye is “On the Importance of Stealing.”

In addressing new lawyers, Keith advises the following:

“[S]tealing is an essential skill for you to develop.”

Not for larceny, of course, he says, but “within the framework of learning and growth.” The objects of this stealing are varied: “other lawyers, CLEs, books, anything really.” New lawyers should “steal their pattern of success.”

This is great advice. But it’s easier in some areas than others. We can look at a great legal brief and break down how each section and each sentence works. We can watch a great advocate and recognize skillful pauses and variations in tone. We can admire a senior lawyer who knows literally every statute and case in a given area of expertise and can assemble and reassemble them instantly in response to any factual question.

What about listening?

Listening is hard to observe and very hard to measure. Speaking and writing are productive – i.e. observable – communication skills. Listening is one of the two receptive communication skills, along with reading. “Listening is a hypothetical construct, something you know exists but you can’t physically see. You can see only the behavioral indicators supporting its existence.” This is from Debra L. Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser’s textbook on listening.

So how do you steal from a hypothetical construct?

The behavioral indicators are a place to start.

This is a complex process: you’re observing affirmative actions such as making eye contact, using appropriate body language, asking questions, and providing “discourse markers” such as “um-hm” that encourage conversation. But you’re also observing what the listener doesn’t do: noticeably look away, check a smartphone, interrupt. Noticing what isn’t there is very, very difficult. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Daniel Kahneman tells us, “WYSIATI”: What you see is all there is.

The ease of perceiving what is there may partly explain why active listening is such a popular listening concept. It has a set of specific repeatable, measurable behaviors that go with it, such as repeating what the speaker has said. If you watch a skilled active listener, you can steal the method. But note how this is not really stealing the person’s listening skills. It’s stealing the productive act of speaking in a certain way, by repeating what the listener just heard.

The most important components of listening are hidden: being aware of and receiving the information, placing it into context with one’s previous knowledge, evaluating and (perhaps) remembering the information, and responding. These elements of listening are drawn again from Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model of listening.

It’s hard to steal someone’s level of awareness. Again here, specific affirmative behaviors may be the only practical proxy. Making eye contact is a sign of awareness, for example. The educational-reform model KIPP teaches children a set of specific classroom behaviors that include “sit up,” “track the speaker,” and “nod your head.”  Body language can shape not only communication behaviors but actual brain chemistry, as Amy Cuddy famously described in her TED Talk and other work on “power posing.” 

The “s” in the MATERRS listening model stands for “stay connected and motivated.” To be a good listener, you have to want to listen.

But how can a person “steal” someone’s else’s motivation? Maybe the answer is an instrumental one: you can observe what their good listening does for them. Specifically, you can observe how you feel when you interact with a skilled listener.

In The Marble and the Sculptor, Keith Lee emphasizes communication — actually over-communication — with clients. This means keeping the client informed, of course. It also means taking time to get to know the client: “Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

This is one of Keith’s many kernels of advice to consider stealing. (Actually he got it from and attributes it to Dan Hull of What About Clients.) Before going on an outing to spend the afternoon at the client’s site, it’s a good idea to prepare. Study up on the client, of course. But also, consider inviting a great lawyer to lunch — someone whose client development and communication skills you know to be first rate.

And then steal their listening.


Note: I was grateful to meet Keith in person as he spoke to the legal blogging class I am co-teaching at Emory Law School. His advice on lawyering and legal blogging is first-rate (obviously!) and was received with great enthusiasm by the students. After seeing him interact with students, I can say Keith is not only a great speaker but also an excellent listener.

Core professional qualities of lawyers

About a thousand law professors are gathering now at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Schools. The first session I attended this morning was Incorporating Teaching Professional Identity into the Legal Education Curriculum, with speakers from Mercer Law School and the University of North Dakota School of Law. Both schools offer innovative courses in building a professional identity as a lawyer.

The new program on professional identity at North Dakota emphasizes twelve core professional qualities, which I quote here from their handout:

  • Adaptability/Deals with Unpredictability
  • Confronts Mistakes
  • Courage
  • Diligence/Reliability
  • Empathy/Compassion
  • Generosity/Public-Mindedness
  • Honesty
  • Humility/Respectfulness/Courtesy
  • Integrity Under Pressure
  • Loyalty
  • Patience/Perseverance/Resilience
  • Professional Objectivity/Sympathetic Detachment

I really love this list and wanted to focus the rest of this post on how listening relates to these core qualities. Interestingly, the list does not include anything about “communicates effectively.” I think the point is to talk about the essential character of the lawyer, which is separate and broader than the lawyer’s discrete skills like communicating effectively. The lawyer’s core qualities are broader and more significant than any one skill; they drive the lawyer’s individual actions and deployment of skills in many ways.

Here are my quick thoughts on highlights of the list in relation to listening.

Adaptability and Dealing with Unpredictability

To be able to adapt, the lawyer has to listen. This is easier at the beginning of a project, when the lawyer is beginning to create the narrative of the case or the strategic approach. It’s harder when the client and/or lawyer already have a narrative or strategy in mind. The best lawyers can hear explicit or implicit dissonance with their chosen narrative, and then assess the risk to that narrative.

Listening also helps with unpredictability, I think in the sense of asking questions and listening to the answer. Open-ended questions may tease out that unpredictability and let a lawyer prepare for it. Closed questions that lead the conversation in a certain way may mask unpredictable facts or preferences, setting up nasty surprises later.


Lawyers have to deal with very difficult facts sometimes. The setting may be a courtroom where a witness recounts painful testimony or a law office where a client shares an uncomfortable truth or a mediation room where harsh words are exchanged or an icy test of wills becomes apparent. The lawyer has to have courage to face these situations and listen with professional body language and a problem-solving demeanor, even if that lawyer’s personal preference would be to go anywhere else in the world.


To do a thorough job, the lawyer has to set up sufficient time for fact-investigation including, possibly, interviews. And the lawyer should use judgment to decide how to go about collecting facts, whether by e-mail or phone or face-to-face meetings.


Listening like a vacuum cleaner sucking up information is not, by itself, effective listening. The listener may be primarily interested in fact investigation and analysis, but listening with empathy will almost always be more professional (as a value) as well as more effective (as a skill).


Giving time to listen is a form of generosity. Giving undivided attention during that time is more difficult and therefore more generous.


Effective listening is all of these things. We’ve all witnessed situations with a bad listener who interrupts to ensure everyone gets the benefit of his or her “wisdom.” Interrupting is a little more complicated than that, though, because some forms of interruption show engagement with the conversation. Effective listening, like professional identity more broadly as discussed in this session, is complex and holistic and cannot be wholly addressed by a set of steps or distinct, invariable behavior rules.


At times, listening is hard. That’s partly because people speak more slowly than our brains want to process information. (A whole separate blog post or posts will cover this idea later. It’s a huge component of why really effective listening can be so hard.) Effective listeners may need to show explicit signs of patience, such as body language and encouraging responses. Effective listeners may also need to struggle with their own intrinsic impatience due to the differential between how fast they hear the information and how fast they are capable of processing information.


Many people have mentioned to me that the best listeners are able to hear what’s not said. That’s partly an intellectual skill. But perseverance helps–asking questions in different ways, listening with discernment to how a person says something, and defining the gap. That’s just one specific point where perseverance and listening intersect. Being able to withstand a 4-hour conference call is another form of perseverance.

Professional Objectivity and Sympathetic Detachment

Effective listening means limiting the influence of one’s preferences and biases. It means being empathetic while not becoming so wrapped up in the narrative that one’s objectivity is compromised. The lawyer’s role is a complex and difficult one, and the seeming paradox of “sympathetic detachment” is just one illustration of the fine line lawyers must walk.

Please feel free to use the comments for sharing more thoughts on listening and how it relates to the core qualities of lawyering.

Thanks again to Professors Patti Alleva and Michael McGinniss of the University of North Dakota and Professors Tim Floyd and Patrick Longan, and Dean Daisy Hurst Floyd of Mercer. I probably won’t be able to blog in this depth again during the conference but will try to at least tweet further thoughts of interest on listening. Listen Like a Lawyer’s Twitter feed can be seen here on the blog on the right-hand panel.

Artisanal listening

McSweeney’s post last week, “I Am An Artisanal Attorney,” caused a ripple of laughter and sharing among lawyers on social media. If you have ever eaten small-batch honey from a meadery or had your mustache trimmed at a groomery or considered purchasing an ascot from an ascottery—or if you just need a laugh—stop and read it.

Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr
Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr

Author and very special attorney John Frank Weaver promises not just to write legal documents, but to hand-craft his own paper from local flax and write the text in ancient script using a feather quill and squid ink:

Don’t be lulled into a complacent life filled with more cheap, manufactured goods than you’ll ever need and lawsuits that don’t reflect your uniqueness. Insist on a life well-lived with food, experiences, and litigation that reflect people and skills, not factories and automation.

After I finished laughing, which took a good long time, I wanted to make a semi-serious point. Weaver’s comic post taps into anxiety about new realities and related fears such as “Here Come the Robot Lawyers.”  In contrast, an artisan is “a person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.” How much of the legal market is and should be artisanal — or “bespoke” — and how much should be standardized or automated is a huge, ongoing, and critically important debate stoked by Richard Susskind and many others. (Here’s one article from the ABA’s Legal Rebels on Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers tapping into this debate.)

Even for those of us who, at heart, want to practice on the bespoke end of the spectrum, we might agree that lawyers don’t need to squeeze their ink out of local squids. They don’t need calling cards printed on Himalayan pressed paper. But it is a requirement of the profession to provide clients with legal services that are customized to the facts of the case. It is an ideal of the profession to tailor these services to the personality and needs of the client as well. And “thinking like an artisan” can be an excellent marketing practice for lawyers because clients may screen their lawyers based on objective criteria and then choose their lawyers based upon more artisanal criteria such as values and fit.

Drawing on what it means to be an artisan, one of the lawyer’s most “traditional methods” is quality face time with people. This relationship building is intertwined with the broader tradition of lawyer as trusted advisor. And one of the traditional techniques of the trusted advisor is listening. Listening is most often and most effectively done in small quantities, such as one-on-one meetings. It takes time and attention to focus on a client and make that client feel special. It takes skill to deploy active as well as passive listening and every other form of listening as needed in the moment. Being really listened to and understood makes a client person feel, well, special—kind of like some people feel when they sip cold-pressed juice infused with artisanal ice and nibble on a side of hand-crafted toast.

Best of 2014: LLL’s Favorite Tweets & Links on Listening and Lawyering

Listening theories. Listening techniques. Body language. Distraction. Music. Hearing impairment. Client development. Client service. Law-firm management. Collaboration. Cognitive styles. Creativity.

Courtesy Flickr/Brad K.
Courtesy Flickr/Brad K.

Asking questions. Mindfulness. Job satisfaction. Emotional intelligence. Psychology. Learning theories and myths. 

Listen Like a Lawyer has a pretty awesome Twitter feed collecting fantastic links on these listening-related topics and more. As an end-of-year review, this post collects one notable link from each month, and some honorable mentions at the end. If you want to share your favorite link about listening, please post in the comments.


Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, The Multitasking Mess, Attorney at Work:


Gerry Riskin, Seven Keys to Retaining Your Clients, Amazing Firms; Amazing Practices


Adam Pasick, The Complete Guide to Listening to Music at Work, Quartz


Art Markman, How to Figure Out What You’re Not Being Told, Fast Company


Wells H. Anderson & Seth G. Rowland, How to Choose the Right Tools for Any Client Communications, ABA GP Solo: Law Practice 2020


Judith E. Glaser & Richard D. Glaser, The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations, Harvard Business Review Blog


Josh Beser, 5 Ways to Follow Up Effectively (With Real-World Examples), JD Supra Business Advisor


Anne Collier, Style Matters: How Cognitive Diversity Affects Your Work, ABA Law Practice Today


Gregory Ciotti, Critique v. Criticize: The Lost Art of Candor in the Workplace, The Next Web


Jeanne R. Lee, Making It Rain–Practical Tips from Those Who Do: Annita Menogan, ABA Women Rainmakers


Scott Eblin, How to Pull Yourself Back from the Brink of Your Caffeine-Driven, Smartphone-Addicted Life, Leading Blog: A Leadership Blog


Allison C. Shields, Use the Spirit of the Holiday Season to Improve Your Networking, Slaw: Canada’s Online Legal Magazine

Honorable Mentions:

How to deal with the impaired lawyer examined in @AZStateBar @azbarcle Friday 12/12

Lawyers need to be open to the signs that colleagues and friends in the profession may be struggling with substance abuse and/or mental-health issues. On that note, this looks like a helpful and important CLE. And for those not in Arizona (myself included), this post contains some helpful linked resources as well.

AZ Attorney


Law practice is a stress-prone profession. We know this through research and experience. But what can be done when we—or our colleagues—are responding to the stress in damaging ways?

As much as we might like to see stress in law practice simply evaporate, that is unlikely to happen. And it is stress and its multiple outcomes that make a State Bar seminar this Friday worth considering.

The title is “Protecting Your Practice: Ethically Dealing with the Impaired Lawyer,” and you can get more information (and register) here. As you’ll see, the panel of experts will examine how you can address—and maybe help—a colleague who is exhibiting warning signs of impairment.

The seminar will be held on this Friday morning, December 12. Because you’re likely busy, I’ll lighten your stress level by copying in here the seminar description:

“With the demands and stresses of the profession increasing…

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