Category: Collaboration

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceInterviewsLaw practicePeople skills

It’s interview season

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

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

 

Clinical legal educationCollaborationLeadershipLegal communicationLegal writing

What lawyers say, and what they actually do

How do lawyers transfer their knowledge? Lawyering scholars have been talking about “tacit knowledge” since the early 1990s. A recent ABA publication encouraged law students to use their externships and other practical experiences to interact with lawyers and try to glean some of that tacit knowledge via “extensive personal contact, regular interaction, and trust.” I touched on tacit knowledge in an early-summer blog post encouraging summer associates to talk with experienced lawyers about their work and to closely observe their nonverbal signals during these conversations.

This advice suggested perhaps the slightest hint of the idea that there might be dissonance in what lawyers say they do and what they actually do. An article by one of my law-professor heroes, Richard Neumann, Jr. explores this concept in depth.  The article is Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, and the Comparative Failures of Legal Education, 6 Clinical L. Rev. 401 (2000). It attacks superficial notions of lawyering and legal education at multiple levels.

What is the difference between what lawyers say they do and what they actually do? The real tacit knowledge is in what they actually do—which they may not be willing to describe or even fully aware of.

This insight is from the work of Donald Schön, a now-deceased professor of architecture at MIT. Schon’s ideas and Neumann’s exploration of them aren’t new, but the insights remain relevant and helpful.

Schön sought a deeper understand of tacit knowledge, questioning its foundations:

[T]acit knowledge is not necessarily accurate knowledge. Because it is tacit, it is also unexamined.

And because it is unexamined, it may be worthy of the term “knowledge” only in sarcastic quote marks:

The tacit ‘knowledge’ of an ineffective professional might be nothing more than superstition—and correspondingly dangerous to clients.

Schön questioned professionals’ capacity to understand and describe their own work. What professionals think they do and what they actually do are often entirely different. Here he used two terms to categorize false and real tacit knowledge. (Neumann, while clearly a fan of Schön’s work, didn’t really like his terminology, and here you may feel a particularly strong urge to close this browser window. But consider plowing on.) Schön’s terms distinguish what a professional says about the work from how the professional actually does the work:

  • A “theory of action” is how a person describes the work they do.
  • A “theory-in-use” is what actually governs the person’s actions.

As a result, we can only learn a person’s true “theory-in-use” by observing their behavior. More broadly, this discrepancy “makes it harder to improve how professionals work.” A lawyer might resist making a change out of the mistaken belief about what she is actually doing. “Because our theory of action seems satisfactory to us, we do not see any reason to change.”

And willingness to change isn’t necessarily sufficient to make a real change. “[E]ven if we can be persuaded to change, we might be satisfied” just by changing our theory of action. This is a change in name only if “we continue what we were doing before because our theory-in-use remains unexamined and controls our actions.”

I’ve thought about this concept with legal writing, and writing generally. It’s much easier to change one’s nominal theory of action, especially if that means adopting new writing software or formats or labels about what one is doing. In an article titled Fighting “Tippism,” Stephen Armstrong and Timothy Terrell wrote about how superficial writing “tips” are no substitute for the real work of learning and using the lessons of rhetoric, logic, and cognitive psychology.

In the realm of listening, the problems equally difficult if not more so because listening is so difficult to observe and measure. One may have a theory of action that they are in fact a great listener and an active listener. They are totally on board with the value of listening.

But their theory-in-use could be quite different. How well someone listens can be described in three major categories, according to Melissa Daimler, Head of Learning and Organizational Development at Twitter, writing for the Harvard Business Review Blog:

Internal listening is focused on your own thoughts, worries, and priorities, even as you pretend you’re focusing on the other person.

Focused listening is being able to focus on the other person, but you’re still not connecting fully to them. The phone may be down and you may be nodding in agreement, but you may not be picking up on the small nuances the person is sharing. 

360 listening.  You’re not only listening to what the person is saying, but how they’re saying it — and, even better, what they’re not saying, like when they get energized about certain topics or when they pause and talk around others.

A lawyer may believe he is a 360 listener, when in fact he is an obstinately internal listener. This mismatch of belief means the lawyer does not feel any need to work on listening because how can you improve upon something already pretty terrific?

And if such a lawyer does read a blog post or attend a training on listening, she might pick up a new term of art for listening, such as “I’m a 360 listener,” while remaining rather poor at it.  This obviously connects to the Dunning-Kruger effect of being so bad at something that you don’t even know you’re bad.

Schön and a collaborator apparently tried to address this difficulty through seminars and training that guided participants to confront the differences between their theories of action and theories-in-use. They sought to help professionals recognize two major approaches to going about professional work:

  • Model I exhibits “highly developed rationality and a commitment to goals and winning.”
  • Model II “develops the largest amount of valid and relevant information and generates the largest number of options from which to choose.”

Model I sounds a lot like a stereotypical lawyer personality. That’s not good news. Model I—also known by Robert Condlin’s term “persuasion mode”—has a lot of problems. Persuasion mode is sometimes useful and beneficial, but as a default personality it has some significant pitfalls, as described in Neumann’s article:

[A] person in persuasion mode tends to act on hidden agendas and strategies; “to minimize self-analysis and to reserve it for private moments when it will not weaken instrumental effectiveness”; and to argue in ways that are subtle but “needlessly stylized and hyperbolic.” Persuasion-mode behavior is profitable in situations where the struggle is for control rather than insight, and where the “self-sealing properties of persuasion mode habits” minimize tentativeness and perplexity. “Persuasion-mode habits predispose lawyers to take evaluative stands automatically” so that they “make statements that, on reflection, they know to be false.” “It causes one to impute rather than explore others’ ends, shut off rather than encourage legitimate objection, . . . and accumulate rather than share decision-making authority.

The other possibility is the learning mode, also known as the inquiring mode. Neumann’s essay on Schön explores how the inquiring mode is more consistent with curiosity, open-ended thinking, and exploration of ideas regardless of consequences. A number of benefits accrue to clients and lawyers, with more meaningful and effective collaboration at the top of the list. The collaboration is better in at least two ways: First, the lawyer does not have to maintain a “professional façade” of being the expert. “The ‘expert’ will want “deference and status in the client’s response to [the] professional persona,” while the reflective practitioner will prefer a ‘sense of freedom and of real connection to the client.’”  At the same time, a client may feel more comfortable with a lawyer in persuading mode because the client can sit back and rely on the assumption the lawyer is the expert and will do everything right. A more reflective lawyer can create a more reflective relationship with the client. In these relationships, lawyer and client “join” in making sense of the case. The client gains “a sense of increased involvement and action.”

With the inquiring mode, lawyer-client collaboration is better in at least two ways: First, the lawyer does not have to maintain a “professional façade” of being the expert. “The ‘expert’ will want “deference and status in the client’s response to [the] professional persona,” while the reflective practitioner will prefer a ‘sense of freedom and of real connection to the client.’” At the same time, a client may feel more comfortable with an “expert” lawyer in persuading mode because the client desires the comfort of passive reliance. A more reflective lawyer can in turn create a more reflective relationship with the client in which lawyer and client “join . . . in making sense of the case.” The client gains “a sense of increased involvement and action.”

Neumann’s review of Schön’s work ends on an extended exploration of how difficult it is to teach any of this in a formal curriculum—especially the curricula of medical and law school as distinct from the arts and architecture. Teaching reflection and modeling it in experiential classes are crucial. One way to start is simply by sharing with law students and lawyers Schön’s essential and upsetting insight that the way we intuitively explain what we do may not be very accurate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceLegal communicationPeople skills

Listening flow

Watching the NBA finals—and seeing Stephen Curry score 38 points in Game 4—makes this a good time to talk about “flow.” Flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Curry echoed these words in analyzing game 4: “I think we just got back to enjoying the process . . . .”

Flow comes up in an older basketball story from Bill Russell, recounted by business author Jeff Walker:

He described a playoff game where, for five minutes, the court “opened up” to him: somehow he knew where every player was (including those who were behind his back) and exactly what moves he needed to make. Even more mysterious, all of Russell’s teammates felt exactly the same. They scored more points during those five minutes than ever before. Leaving the court in victory, they turned to one another and said, “We have to figure out how to do that again!”

Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been writing about flow since the 1970s and founded the field of “flow research.” (Here’s his TED Talk.) In a chapter on “The Concept of Flow” co-written with Jeanne Nakamura, he itemized the characteristics of being in flow:

  • Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Loss of reflective self-consciousness (i.e., loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor)
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions; that is, a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process

The conditions for achieving this state include having a clear goal, immediate feedback, and a good match between the person’s skill level and the difficulty of the task. Flow is most associated with creative activities and sports (thus the connection to basketball). Flow is not so much associated with passive activities. As the studies point out, watching TV is not the same thing as achieving flow.

What about practicing law? Much has been written about lawyers’ achieving flow as part of career satisfaction, such as here and here and here. And in particular, what about lawyering and listening? Listening is a “receptive” communication channel along with reading, unlike the productive channels of writing and talking. (I take it as a given we all know lawyers who enter some kind of personal “zone” when they are talking.)

The most direct approach to listening and flow is to look at listening as part of a larger project with a goal. For example, taking a deposition. A deposition is an intense listening experience aimed at producing something very specific, namely a useful written record to use in the litigation. While working toward that goal during the deposition experience, lawyers may find it comes pretty naturally to focus and enter a flow state on what the witness is saying and what questions to ask. The adrenaline certainly helps. And if a real-time digital transcript is available, that’s instant feedback as well. On the other hand, achieving flow supposedly means getting past worry and fear of failure. I’m not sure most lawyers taking depositions would say they completely let go of fear and worry in the experience.

Also the idea of flow is that you lose the awareness of yourself as a social actor. But contentious depositions mean maintaining several layers of social awareness—not just the question being asked, but also the potential leverage for various motions and other interventions if the lawyers and witnesses do not cooperate. So it does seem possible for a lawyer taking a deposition to experience aspects of flow such as intense focus and distorted perception of time, I’m not sure many would claim they truly felt flow in a situation like this. Thoughts and feedback are certainly welcome in the comments here as well as on social media (Twitter: @ListenLikeaLwyr).

What about listening when there is not necessarily a clear external goal such as making the record? The best conversationalists seem to be motivated by the goal of just focusing on the other person—having a conversation because the other person is just so interesting. One of the scholarly models of listening has a final step of “staying connected and motivated.” (This is the Worthington/Fitch-Hauser model.) Great conversationalists seem to be intensely focusing on the conversation, easily able to contribute without effort, and intrinsically rewarded by the experience of having it. And whether or not they are actually experiencing flow, they create the perception of flow for the other person in the conversation.

Beyond listening for a project (such as making a record) and listening one-on-one, collaborating with others in a group has at least the possibility of some sort of flow. Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura refer to “shared flow.” Business author Jeff Walker (who recounted the Bill Russell story above) calls it a “collective flow state.” Not a lot has been written about this idea of shared or collective flow; Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura suggest it needs more academic study.

Some articles on lawyering and legal education do raise the possibility of creating flow within collaborative groups of lawyers and law students. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept is cited in this article on the experience of team lawyering doing clinical work for Haitian refugees with HIV-positive status, by Albany Law School’s Raymond Brescia:

The team nature of the effort, and the affirming trust members of the team gave one another, meant that as we developed different strengths and skills, we were able to achieve benchmark milestones, receiving constant feedback along the way which gave us information that allowed us to develop our expertise.

Likewise Stephen Krieger and Serge Martinez describe the experience of flow in their article A Tale of Election Day 2008: Teaching Storytelling through Repeated Experiences, 16 Legal Writing 116 (2010). These professors led a team of students in advocating for individuals seeking to vote on November 4, 2008, and they noticed a marked and somewhat unexpected improvement in these students’ storytelling skills through the course of that single day. They concluded that flow conditions were a partial cause:

Apparently—and without any conscious intent on our part— the surroundings on that date contributed to the experience of flow. There was easy access to information; Steve, an Election Law expert, was present. There was stimulation from other students and attorneys handling similar cases. And there was an overall sense of community of purpose. As Dan implied, it felt like a neighborhood law office, not like a classroom.

These articles may actually be suggesting individual flow experienced by the students and professors in a group setting, rather than shared flow within a group performing together (such as an NBA team). When the team functions as a unit with interdependent parts—when each team member knows when to speak and when to sit back, when the lead lawyer looks down the table to ask a question only to receive the answer on a post-it already en route—that’s shared flow.

Please share your thoughts on individual and shared flow, and the experience of listening as part of flow.

In a later post, I will explore some counter-points to flow such as this post from Cal Newport suggesting that seeking flow is not the same as engaging in deliberate practice. I’ve often thought that for legal writers, seeking a feeling of flow may not produce high-quality work, especially for very new legal writers. The article about the Election Day clinic appeared to be describing an upper-level clinic where students had a base of knowledge to deploy that day. I want to think more about how this point could apply to communication and listening.

In the meantime, here’s a link to an ABA Journal article on flow for lawyers, by Steven Keeva, a prolific and kind ABA writer who was gone too soon:

https://books.google.com/books?id=UbXRppru0BYC&lpg=PT159&ots=AH6z2v7lsn&dq=lawyers%20and%20flow%20state&pg=PT159&output=embed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CollaborationFact investigationLegal communicationLegal writingPeople skills

Listening for summer associates

A successful summer-associate experience means doing good work and creating good social impressions. Listening skills can help with both.

The assignment and the work

The most obvious place to talk about listening and work product is in the incredibly important meeting where the senior lawyer communicates the assignment.Here’s a checklist for listening while taking an assignment. One theory of checklists is that they shouldn’t include the obvious things everybody already knows and does. If you read Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, you will learn that effective checklists should not be overloaded with obvious items no one actually forgets to do. But in case it’s not obvious, let me quote one to-do item (thrice repeated) in The Vault’s advice piece on “Acing Your Law Firm Summer”:

Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. 

The advanced skill is to take notes while still asking good questions and maintaining a conversational tone. And an even more advanced skill is perceiving what isn’t there. Legal writing guru Ross Guberman has suggested that “in this iPhone age, supervisors often forget to relay key information.” Reviewing a checklist before the meeting can help prompt good questions during the meeting to bring out valuable information.

Confirming the assignment in writing after the meeting can prompt the attorney to share further crucial information: “Attorneys are text people, so seeing your write-up might help your supervisor steer you onto the right track before it’s too late.” And this type of confirmation can showcase listening and writing skills as well. But I’ve also heard attorneys express annoyance at receiving e-mail back confirmations of every assignment-related conversation. The more formal and significant the assignment, the more appropriate it is to confirm the facts and assignment in writing.

Listening can play a broader role even before the assigning conference.  It has to do with picking up underlying knowledge and context for doing the job well. The most effective legal work product is effective partly because it is grounded in the lawyer’s understanding of that area of law and how it works in practice. Lawyers with experience in a particular practice area are more effective than beginners at what they do partly because they have “tacit” knowledge—that is, knowledge that is not written down and is difficult to share.

The ABA’s Before the Bar publication highlighted the role of tacit knowledge and why it’s so important to aspiring lawyers:

Your goal should be to gain tacit knowledge in order to build your practical skill set. To do this, attorneys need to transfer their tacit knowledge to you and the most effective way to do this is through extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. In other words, tacit knowledge is transferred through practice.

Summer associates cannot be expected to have the tacit knowledge that veteran lawyers in a practice area do. But summer associates who show they can pick up tacit knowledge quickly and apply it in their work are likely to stand out. For example a patent lawyer needs different ways of communicating with engineering clients and generalist judges. That’s maybe not a great example of tacit knowledge because it’s not so difficult to share.

Perhaps a better example is what it’s like to work with clients who don’t necessarily feel a great deal of affection and affinity for the law or lawyers in general. To take this social example a bit further, what is it like to work with clients who have a strong in-group identity? Let’s take doctors or more specifically surgeons, for example. Clients with a strong in-group identity may or not be willing to trust lawyers hovering at the edges of the in-group, and the most effective lawyers are highly perceptive about how to work with such clients. (Highly successful sports and entertainment lawyers come to mind here as well.)

Tacit knowledge about how a lawyer and a law firm go about working with such clients can help not just in a general social sense but with performing the substance of the work. The way a lawyer would communicate with such clients is very different from communicating with a legal writing professor or a senior lawyer. The substance of how to be successful in these settings goes beyond broad statements like “think of your audience” and easily transferable points like “don’t use legal jargon with non-lawyers.” In the ABA article, author Max Rosenthal went on to assert that all practical legal skills are rooted in tacit knowledge—not only writing and communication, but analysis itself.

Listening can help a summer associate begin to access some of this tacit knowledge. Through “shadow” programs and being invited along on a deposition or other legal event, summer associates can  just watch, listen, and learn. As with good law-school externships, these opportunities may be some of the most inclusive and rare opportunities to listen and learn, relatively free as they are of the pressure to bill time.

Tacit knowledge is, by definition, difficult to access directly. But conversations with lawyers in a practice area may be a start. Good conversations before any particular assignment can yield information about how lawyers do their job well in a particular practice area with particular types of clients. Show curiosity. Ask them about their experiences, successes, and challenges in that practice. What do they wish they had known when they started? Listen carefully to their words, and watch their nonverbal communication as they share their experiences. What are they telling with their nonverbal communication, as well as showing with their words? All of this information is valuable toward understanding this person and this person’s experience in this area of law. For good listeners who are curious, every piece of information they collect helps them do their work more effectively.

Social skills

Summer associates need to show that not only can they do the work, but they are also a “good fit” at the firm internally and can be trusted to interact with clients. These concerns mean summer associates should work on all kinds of social skills such as dressing appropriately and monitoring alcohol intake.

Listening helps across the entire spectrum of social skills. Here are just a few examples:

  • Showing curiosity by asking good questions and responding appropriately to the answers to continue the conversation
  • Knowing when to sit back and observe, such as when a senior lawyer is interacting with the client and the summer associate has the good fortune to be there
  • Maintaining focus on the situation even when not playing a direct role
  • Being able to converse informally (such as at a happy hour) by starting a conversation, bringing other people into the conversation, and leaving a conversation
  • Demonstrating recollection of earlier details and bringing them into later conversations appropriately

Evaluating listening

There don’t seem to be any published summer associate evaluation forms, but it is a certainty that they include criteria for effective communication skills. Communication involves four distinct channels: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Listening may not be mentioned explicitly to the same extent as effective oral and written communication, but it is part of effective communication.

Listening can be subtle and hard to measure. It’s so difficult to say  whether another person is a good listener or a great listener. But when it comes to human perception and evaluation of others, “bad is stronger than good.” That means a hiring committee’s evaluation discussions may focus on problems or concerns, rather than subtle gradations of what went well. Some aspects of poor listening may be hidden—for example, not catching the subtleties of an assignment and therefore writing an acceptable memo that misses an opportunity to add value. (More on adding value below.) But some bad listening is very easy to spot. Looking at one’s smartphone while in the presence of a Very Important Person would be one example of what not to do.

Adding value and building professional identity

Listening can help a summer associate achieve the most nebulous and most important goal of all—“adding value” to the legal work of the firm. It’s a buzzword and maybe even a cliche, but there are ways for summer associates to add value by listening. Observing a deposition could provide an opportunity to watch the witness’s body language and suggest a follow-up question after a break. Shadowing a corporate lawyer could open up conversations about different ways to handle a type of transaction depending on the client’s goals. Asking questions that demonstrate understanding and curiosity about the profession suggests a greater long-term potential for adding value.

And listening can also help the summer associate directly with an more individual goal (one that is also nebulous but also important): building that summer associate’s own professional identity as a lawyer. One definition of professional identity is “the way a lawyer understands his or her role relative to all of the stakeholders in the legal system, including clients, courts, opposing parties and counsel, the firm, and even the legal system itself (or society as a whole).” (This is from Scott Fruehwald’s book Developing Your Professional Identity: Creating Your Inner Lawyer, quoting an article by Martin Katz on teaching professional identity in law schools.)

Certainly law school is a place where professional identity starts to form; taking those skills out into the almost-real-world of being a summer associate should be an even more meaningful opportunity to do so. However the summer turns out, it will have been some kind of step on the way towards a more fully formed professional identity.

This post was updated from its original form to include the ABA article recommending practical experience as the method for law students to acquire tacit knowledge.

For more reading on listening and summer associates: Listening as a hard skill and a soft skill

For more on checklists and legal writing: The Legal Writer’s Checklist Manifesto

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLeadershipPeople skills

Is teamwork the same as collaboration?

 

Earlier this week Listen Like a Lawyer discussed Google’s teamwork study investigating the qualities of effective teams. In the post I mentioned that teamwork is so important in part because many cases are too complex for one person to manage. One bit of feedback on the post agreed that teamwork is “vital now for successful legal practices.”

Shortly thereafter I ran across this post from Lisa Needham at the Lawyerist, “Too Much Teamwork is Terrible.” The post ends with a plea:

Ban teamwork. Or at least reduce it drastically.

Both the Google article in praise of effective teams and the Lawyerist post against teams cite the same Harvard Business Review study concluding “the time spent by managers and employees on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”

So if teamwork is so good, why is it so bad?

I think the real issue is the difference between formal teams and informal collaboration throughout an organization.

The Google study profiled in the New York Times seemed to focus on formal work groups—groups formed by assignment to address some specific task or role over time. These work groups seem analogous to a group of lawyers assigned to a client service team or a specific deal, trial, or other project.

The Harvard Business Review article on collaboration appears to be addressing a much broader phenomenon. It’s not just about the dynamics inside individual work groups assigned to discrete projects, but also about collaboration throughout an organization. Collaboration may take the form of sharing information, sharing social resources, or sharing one’s own time and energy—which, unlike the first two categories of collaboration, is a finite and exhaustible resource. These can happen within a formal team or in broader, more diffuse ways throughout an organization. A person who is willing to collaborate with others may be subject to “escalating citizenship” in which workers who want to help become so over-burdened that they become a burned-out bottleneck. To quote the article, the “virtuous cycle” of collaboration turns “vicious.”

I’m no Adam Grant, but if this distinction is correct, then the Google study and the Lawyerist post are also both correct. Complex long-term problems and strategic goals cannot be solved by lone-wolf lawyers. Therefore, lawyers working in formal teams can benefit from studying their group norms and seeking to collaborate most effectively. These types of teams should not be disbanded or reduced in scope.

On the other hand, managers should monitor the collaborative burdens across their organization to avoid inefficient, inequitable demands on “extra milers” (quoting the HBR article) being asked to collaborate beyond the scope of their roles.

Of course there is a challenging question in the middle of this: work groups formed not for direct legal service but for internal firm/agency management. In other words, firm committees. These groups can certainly benefit from studying dynamics in the spirit of the Google study. But the HBR study and Lisa Needham’s critique raise the question: what is the reward structure of the firm or organization, and is collaborative committee work compromising individuals’ capacity to participate in that reward structure?

For insight into this question, I would first recommend Helen Wan’s great novel The Partner Track.

On a more quantitative note, the HBR study suggests collecting and assessing data about who is doing what. It also suggests employee surveys and 360 feedback. To take a 50,000-foot view of these suggestions, it seems that one way to begin to address this question is by listening.

 

 

CollaborationFact investigationGenderTrial advocacyUncategorized

You should watch The People v. O.J. Simpson

To echo what many have said, I now know what I’ll be doing for the next ten Tuesday nights. The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story (FX Networks) is as incredible as everyone is saying. For viewers who lived through the spectacle, it brings back memories (“Where was I the night of the white-Bronco chase?”) and forces connections (an even closer look at the Kardashian family, which didn’t seem possible). More broadly and as the New York Times has pointed out, the opening scenes of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots (mediated through TV news) set the stage not just for the investigation and “Trial of the [20th] Century” but for connections to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement today.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is also a story about lawyers and lawyering, with a deeper view than anyone got in real-time, drawing from Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (interview with Toobin here).

There’s the distracted Marcia Clark cradling a landline and feeding cereal to her cute but ungrateful kids while she learns about the murders. (Actor Sarah Paulson told the Wall Street Journal: “I didn’t understand what I do now—that it was a great failure of women everywhere to not have come out rallying behind her in what was a real assault on her by the media.”) There’s Robert Shapiro holding court about his greatness in a posh restaurant when he’s interrupted to take O.J.’s call. There’s Robert Kardashian patting his friend O.J.’s shoulder, his eyes widening perhaps just a bit when Shapiro suggests that he reactivate his law license and join O.J.’s defense team. There’s Christopher Darden in an unguarded moment with Johnnie Cochran before either of them knows what is about to hit.

During the first episode, I tried to watch with an eye toward blogging something about listening. The most obvious scene was Shapiro’s show of meeting alone with O.J. to ask him if he did it. O.J. looks him back in the eye and says, “No. I loved my wife.” The police demonstrated some really poor listening and questioning skills in their early taped interview with him, sending Marcia Clark into paroxysm and foreshadowing trouble for the prosecution. (Later listening to the tape, an officer notes how hard it is to question a famous guy like The Juice.) Yet there’s the initially positive and collaborative environment within the prosecutors’ legal team, fueled by confidence at the story they perceived to be coming together.

By the end of the episode, however, I turned off the analytical brain and just watched. Even now, it was too much. How did this all happen? I couldn’t parse it objectively from a distance. And I guess that’s the problem and one of the show’s essential points.

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.

Clinical legal educationCollaborationEmotional intelligenceLeadershipLegal communication

What is listening? Q&A with Jennie Grau

One of the best things about writing this blog has been the opportunity to talk with and meet (in person, by phone, or by e-mail) a variety of communication experts. One of them is Jennie Grau, President of Grau Interpersonal Communications. Jennie has spent her career training, coaching, writing, and speaking, on the subject of listening. She is a Certified Listening Professional (CLP) of the International Listening Association. Although not an attorney, she is surrounded by attorneys in her family life. In her professional work, she has done a variety of trainings with lawyers and other legal professionals. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Jennie Grau for responding to this Q&A.

What would you say are the classic concepts in listening?

Listening is thought of and explored from many perspectives. Musicians talk about listening in terms of entertainment, emotions, and aesthetics. Listening to music is a form of appreciative listening. While it may not seem pertinent to lawyers, there is a music of the voice which through tone, pace, pause, and quality communicates the emotional undercurrent of human interaction.

In legal contexts and in law school, listening is often thought of as a tool to support critical thinking and analysis. The focus is on critical listening, or reply style listening, to better advocate for a position.

Empathic listening, often associated with medical and therapeutic contexts, is equally important for dispute resolution. Empathic listening involves being able to understand and articulate another person’s perspective. If you can see the world through someone else’s eyes, you are better able to uncover viable solutions which result in more successful negotiations. In addition to dispute resolution, empathic listening is key to building rapport, loyalty, and trust, the foundations of good relationships with both clients and colleagues.

Mindfulness is another form of listening. It involves listening to oneself. Mindfulness can be thought of as the ability to still one’s own thoughts. It expands one’s awareness and ability to concentrate. The aggressive Type-A business personality may not intuitively embrace the idea of listening to self. The need to quiet the noise in our heads, to fully focus, to relinquish the speaker role, is essential for full understanding. Mindfulness is appreciated by the business community when it is recognized as a tool to accomplish their goals.

What package of listening skills do lawyers need?

Stephen R. Covey observed that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In fact, one of the skills of advocacy is “listening to reply.” Listening to reply is important because lawyers have to give advice, set an agenda, evaluate, and at times rebut.

But there is a complementary other half of that famous statement—the listening to understand. That second set of skills, inquiry, comprehending, supporting and uniting, is important because the courtroom is not the only legal context where listening happens. In these additional contexts understanding the other party is a powerful skill.

Think about who is encouraged to go to law school. If you are good at debate and rhetoric, people say, “You should be a lawyer!” But if you are a brilliant listener and can understand the human condition, no one says that. They say, “You should be a social worker or psychologist or go into business.”

Among this second set of skills, lawyers need the skill of inquiry. That’s different from interrogation. Inquiry sustains rapport during an interaction while uncovering new information. Lawyers also need skills that demonstrate comprehension such as paraphrasing what was said and sometimes what is not said overtly but implied such as the feelings, needs, and interests of the speaker.

Lawyers also need the skill of unifying parties’ discrepant interests. For example, in a gritty and messy divorce, lawyers benefit from the skill of keeping people at the table and working through the issues. In dealing with family conflict, the lawyer may need to listen through years of emotions and relationship issues. In listening to what lies below the objective statement, the lawyer can recognize possible solutions by understanding what is important to each party.

Why is it important to develop those deeper listening skills?

 Because there are so many benefits, for both tasks and relationships, when you listen deeply. Real listening means getting to a shared understanding between speaker and listener. Without that, we lose vast amounts of data that could help solve problems and resolve conflicts. Deep listening is worth the effort.

How do you know if you are good or bad at listening?

The short answer is you ask key people in your life for feedback: your colleagues, your family, and your friends. Our own perception of our listening skills is usually inaccurate. Ask questions like:

  • Do I focus on you and what you are saying when you want my attention?
  • Do I seem to understand what you mean rather than what I would mean if I had said the same thing?
  • Do I remember what you tell me?
  • Do you feel like I really listen to you?

Most people’s listening is unskilled. We rarely teach this in schools, and we are blind to the fact we are unskilled. Prior to my seminars, I ask people to rate how skillful they are as listeners. On average I get a rating of 80%. After the seminar I ask again. They laugh and tell me they did not know how much they did not know.

What is your advice for lawyers and other legal professionals?

Assume there is more than you are getting

When you are listening begin with the assumption that what you understand may not be accurate or complete. Create opportunities to explore a conversation more fully: “What did you mean?” “Tell me more.” “How does that work?” The beginning of listening is recognizing how likely you are to have misunderstood what the other person meant.

Appreciate the power of the pause

It may seem like a speaker is finished. They may use downward inflection in their speech and break eye contact but still have more to say. A listener can use the pause: count to ten and do a full inhale and exhale before going on or even asking a follow up. You will be surprised to discover how often more will come. This is particularly true when you are listening to someone speaking in a language other than their first language.

Try “the five why’s

This means asking “why” five times. This practice comes from the world of engineering. The theory is that the first time someone answers a question about “why,” their answer is probably superficial. Going beyond the first answer allows the speaker to find the root cause and gives them more time to connect ideas that they had not connected before. This technique is especially effective if you don’t use the word “why” which can cause people to feel defensive. Instead ask a “why question” saying “How come?” “What caused that?” or “What lead to that?”

What else?

Use this technique when you believe everything has been said and you are effectively done with the discussion. Questions such as “Is there anything else?” and “What else should we be talking about?” often elicit new information. It is shocking how often people will add new and often critical content at this time. There is a parallel in the medical field, “the door knob moment” when the doctor is about to leave the exam room and the patient shares new and important health information.

Build the listening container with your non-verbal presence

The way listeners use their face, eyes, body, posture, gesture and voice create a context for interaction. Your non-verbal presence can put people at ease or make them more guarded. People often enter a lawyer’s office with anxiety. They may not be happy to be there. They may be worried about the cost or the outcome. Many people are uncomfortable with conflict. It’s an unfamiliar setting and alien experience. In this context, listening is extremely important for building trust with new clients and ensuring existing clients follow your advice. It is a way for you to develop respect.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for brevity.

Listen Like a Lawyer is currently working with Jennie Grau and several other lawyers/mediators/Certified Listening Professionals on a possible CLE session in Tucson, Arizona, in March 2016. More information will be forthcoming on the blog when details are more certain. 

Client developmentCollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm marketingPeople skills

Listening until it hurts

Recently I tried a workout at Orangetheory. This is a relatively new exercise franchise offering intense one-hour workouts with running, rowing, lifting, and uncountable numbers of crunches. Everyone wears a heart monitor, and throughout the workout you can check out the monitor to see just how hard you and your heart are working—as well as everybody else in the class.

I was nervous to try a new workout, but every time I glanced up there, my score was green. Green is good, right? It’s aerobic, and aerobic is good, right?

Actually no.

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To score points in the Orangetheory workout, you have to go beyond green. You have to get into the “orange zone” (thus the franchise name, I suppose) or even the red zone. That means not walking, not jogging, not running at a steady clip. That means sprinting, and panting, and gasping for breath.

You get lots of points for orange and red. Not so much for green.

At the end of the workout, the guy next to me had scored 24 points and I got 6. He crushed me even though he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time. He crushed me because he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time.

As I pondered this failure, I wondered whether the lesson might to listening as well.

It seems likely that many of us are sailing comfortably along with our listening and other communication skills. Of course we’re putting out effort. We make eye contact. We use active-listening techniques to paraphrase back important nuggets of the conversation and move it forward. We take notes unobtrusively and follow up with e-mail confirmations.

We’re in the green zone of listening.

What would it look like to move into the orange or even red zone?

Listening is a receptive communication channel (like reading, and in contrast to writing and speaking). To design an Orangetheory program for listening, we would need to raise the intensity level quite a bit. It’s not about trying a little harder on one or two points all the time. It’s taking a short amount of time to listen, radically.

But how would we know that someone was working in the high-intensity range of this receptive skill?

Maybe by measuring the proportion of time spent talking to listening. There is a natural give and take in conversations, but if you’re talking and listening comfortably—for you, subjectively—you may be malingering in the green zone. (See Mark Goulston on “How to Know If You Talk Too Much.”)

Some have suggested an 80-20 rule of focusing on the other person. Steve Yastrow, who writes about improvisation techniques for marketing, says to keep the focus 95 percent about the other person. That is red zone material. That’s hard.

Maybe the mindfulness of the listener to what the speaker is saying. There’s no “brain monitor” for focus—at least no affordable one—but theoretically if the listener’s mind is filled with what to say next and what to eat for dinner, that may not even be in the green zone of listening. It could be the dreaded blue zone, which is literally the zone of pointlessness in Orangetheory because you score no points.

Red-zone listening takes in information in a powerful and efficient way. At the front end of the listening process, focus and memory are as crucial as body strength and VO² max are to powerful workouts.

Maybe one key metric would be whether—and to what extent—the listener feels he or she is actually being listened to.

One reality of exercise and mental processes is that they work only to exhaustion. Attention is a muscle that can be depleted. The body and mind together can be depleted. (Read anything by Daniel Kahneman’s work, or anything about his work. In a study of parole decisions, judges made harsher decisions when they were hungry and tired after hearing several cases.)

But the concept behind any program like Orangetheory is to build capacity by stressing the body. The stress has to be appropriate, but what is appropriate has changed. (See this article from the New York Times on a 12- minute workout that helped veteran runners shave time off their 5Ks simply by a few 10-second spurts of going all out.)

Georgia attorney and magistrate judge Phill Bettis told me about a church mission to West Virginia where he met and talked with a retired coal miner. Phil and I were discussing emotional intelligence and empathy, and how they relate to listening. This was a vivid memory for Phil because he wasn’t sure at first how to find common ground with someone whose life experience had been so very different from his. Phil’s experience might be viewed as one type of “red-zone listening.”

So is listening to someone in grief, or a life crisis. An attorney recently wrote on the Texas Bar Blog about his experience with depression, and how other attorneys may serve as a “patient friend.” No one seeks a conversation like this out in order to hone their own skills, of course. (Actually some people run from them, although those will admit doing so are rare in their honesty.)

Being in such a conversation creates a moment to leave the green zone (the comfort zone) behind. Really listening at such a moment—which regardless of your legal training and expertise may actually be the only way to help—makes all the other efforts pay off, and far beyond what can be quantified in zones a scoreboard.

Here is a related post imagining “Tabata” training for listening.

Photo credit: Courtesy E’Lisa Campbell/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Client developmentCollaborationEmotional intelligenceGenderLeadership

Why it’s so hard to be understood

Among Listen Like a Lawyer’s summer reading is Heidi Grant Halvorson’s No One Understands You and What To Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press 2015). Halvorson is a professor at Columbia Business School; here she is interviewed by CBS News about the book.

51nTzV8T70L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The book’s focus is on understanding how others perceive you, so that you may better manage how you are perceived. It’s not focused on the legal industry, but it discusses psychological dynamics that certainly apply in law offices as well as any organization. For lawyers, law students, and legal professionals, I would say this book is most useful for the following goals:

  • exploring the dynamics of interviewing process
  • delving beyond the surface in what is happening at work, particularly in work teams and with organizational clients
  • improving how one is perceived by a supervisor or work team
  • lightly exploring broader “psychology of leadership” concepts in the business world

Across situations, cognitive biases on all sides create distortions and disconnects in how someone thinks they are perceived and a perceiver’s actual impression. For the person communicating a message, the “transparency illusion” creates the overly optimistic expectation that others do in fact understand our intention. This illusion comes about in part from overconfidence about how clearly we communicate:

Your emotions are less obvious than you realize, and your face is less expressive too. Studies show that while very strong, basic emotionssurprise, fear, disgust, and angerare fairly easy to read, the more subtle emotions we experience on a daily basis are not.

On the receiving end, the well-known confirmation bias leads people to interpret information as confirming what they already think. These types of biases are semi-automatic and hard to combat, although more effortful, careful thinking in the “correction phase” can correct for distortions. (This is what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2.)

After laying this groundwork, Halvorson spends most of the book talking about the “lenses” that affect first impressions, before any intentional “corrections” can take place. The three key lenses are:

  • the trust lens

Trust is based on two factors—warmth and competencethat may sometimes be at odds with each other. More on that in a moment.

  • the power lens

To get the attention of a powerful person, it’s all about showing your “instrumentality.” As Halvorson writes, “It’s not about being niceit’s about being useful.”

  • the ego lens

The ego plays games with perception so that the perceiver comes out on top. Understanding ego dynamics can help a person avoid being seen as an ego threat. The least manipulative-sounding of these is focusing on how the speaker and perceiver are members of the same group (such as alums of the same school or members of the same profession).

These lenses are at work in difficult situations that lawyers and legal professionals face every day. A few that come to mind: clients who resist signing settlements that are strongly in their favor; supervising lawyers who want to control conversations with clients; legal professionals who gain a reputation—either for good or poor work—that seems difficult if not impossible to alter.

All of these lenses could help with the goal of listening, in that knowing about them can help a listener understand better what the other person is saying and why. Developing trust by cultivating warmth was where listening came into play explicitly. Some warmth tactics seem obvious: make eye contact, smile, and focus. But Halvorson cites studies that “people generally have no idea when they are not doing these things.” One practical theme of the book is just to ask friends and family about how you come across: do you make eye contact? How do they perceive you?

A potential difficulty for lawyers is the conflict—or at least perceived conflict—between what it takes to show warmth versus competence:

When people are trying to appear warm, they are agreeable, engage in flattery, make kind gestures, and encourage others to talk (i.e. they are good listeners). But when they want to appear competent, they do the opposite–speaking rather than listening, focusing the conversation on their own accomplishments and abilities, and challenging the opinions of others as a demonstration of their own expertise. In fact, both consciously and unconsciously, people tend to use this knowledge and play down their competence (i.e., play dumb) to appear warm, and vice versa.

 

Halvorson notes this conflict is a particular conundrum for “nontraditional women” who may experience particularly virulent sexism for perceived failure to adhere to stereotypes about women. This is an example where she nods to the deep and troubling excesses of cognitive biases, but this book is not the place to look for introspection or sensitive exploration of stereotypes and what to do about them.

Rather, it’s a pragmatic toolkit for the person who wants others to “get” them. For trying to resolve the warmth/competence conflict, Halvorson suggests the “moral” aspects of warmth do not conflict with competence. These aspects include being “courageous, fair, principled, responsible, honest, and loyal.” She notes that in a brief interview, it is a lot easier to show your sense of humor than that you are principled. But overall, perceived—and actual—trust is built by “being someone the perceiver can always count on to do the right thing.”

Halvorson also has chapters for difficult interactions such as those with “vigilant risk-mitigators” and “aloof, avoidant perceivers.” She closes with a relatively short treatment  seeing others more clearly (e.g., “take more time” and “consider evidence for and against” a hypothesis) and even seeing yourself more clearly. A common thread throughout the book is to ask friends, family and (if you dare) colleagues how you come across. If people consistently perceive you in ways you don’t intend, then reading, re-reading, and working on the ideas in this book may be in order.