Category: Collaboration

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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?
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Second-chair listening

The role of a good second-chair lawyer at trial is strategically crucial. Yet the second chair’s contribution can be difficult to see, compared with that of the lead lawyer starring in the show. Two major components of the second chair’s contribution are preparation (before trial) and listening (at trial). The preparation gives the second chair something to contribute, and the listening is what allows the second chair to make that contribution at the right time.

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Courtesy Flickr/Independent Man

I wanted to write about second chairing partly based on my own experience (years ago) as a second chair at depositions, arbitrations, and trial. Sometimes I knew I was being helpful, such as by pointing out some questions the lead attorney didn’t quite get to. Other times I worried that I was being annoying or distracting and wasn’t sure how to adjust the filter on how much to share. It was crucial to listen not only to the information being revealed through the proceeding itself, but also to the subtle cues of the first chair on the best and worst times to speak up.

Various ABA publications have some good advice for second chairs such as “How to Shine as a Second Chair” by Myra Mormile and “Your First Trial: Understanding the Second-Chair Role” by Michael R. Carey. A few major themes of listening are woven throughout. One is active listening. The other is listening for what’s not there (perhaps the hardest kind of listening, cognitively). Another important aspect of the second chair’s role is that even though it’s not a starring role, the second chair is being observed as well. The second chair’s demeanor in the act of listening and assisting has to be controlled just as much as the lead lawyer’s.

Virtually every piece of advice on second chairing will talk about active listening. Mormile cautioned second chairs going to trial for the first time every to avoid “deer in headlights” syndrome. She’s not addressing active listening in the traditional sense of listening, rephrasing the statement back to the speaker, and asking him or her to go on. She’s talking about the activity that should come about as a result of listening:

Don’t react; anticipate. If the first chair turns to you more than you turn to him or her, you have failed as a second chair. Avoid this by anticipating where your first chair, and the case, is headed. Listen to your first chair, the opposing party, and the fact-finder. If opposing counsel directs the witness to an exhibit or references a specific case, you should pull it on your own before your first chair asks for it.

This idea that the second chair is always active also resonated with Carey:

[W]hen your first chair crosses that expert, you get to listen and take notes. But second chair is not a casual observer role–you are actively listening and evaluating the evidence for substance and delivery. Tell your first chair about any problems before it is too late. If you cannot successfully fulfill this role, you might as well be sitting in the gallery.

Listening for what is not said, what’s left out, what’s elided — that’s one of the hardest parts of listening, at trial or otherwise. The reason is what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls the availability bias. Our brains are biased towards information that is present in the affirmative sense. Yet to be a good second chair, a lawyer must try to overcome this bias and listen for missing pieces. As Mormile points out, “When your witness leaves out a point in his or her testimony, bring it to your first chair’s attention.” How does one overcome the availability bias to do this? It’s difficult, but checklists may help trigger your brain to search for gaps, a suggestion that certainly resonates with best practices for trial prep. (Just Google “trial preparation checklist.” Here’s one example of too many to count.)

Beyond listening for specific information, problems, and gaps, the second chair’s listening role is also atmospheric. The second chair should have some extra cognitive bandwidth (that the lead lawyer doesn’t, given the demands of that role) to monitor the entire scene, as Michael Carey points out:

You have the luxury of looking around the room to see who might be falling asleep, who is aghast, who is rolling their eyes, or who is nodding along with your first chair’s line of questining. First chair relies on you to provide a comprehensive evaluation of how the jury and the judge are responding to the evidence.

And your listening is itself being observed, as Carey further points out: “[R]emember that you are being watched by the jury. If you look like you are trying to spy on opposing counsel, the jurors will lose trust in you.” Thus, non-distracting, focused, respectful body language is crucial. Here are a good quick primer on effective body language in court and some videos from litigation consulting firm A2L.

As noted above and in earlier posts on this blog, I’m a strong proponent of checklists. The parent of the  checklists-in-the-professions movement is Dr. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Gawande recommends that process-based checklists should include some sort of post-performance or “after action” review. For second chairs, this is crucial advice for many reasons, not least of which is that presumably most second chairs want to move up to first chair at some point. Second chairs can seek an informal “after action” by asking their first chairs, “How did I do?” Listening is very difficult to evaluate  in part because the act of listening is itself difficult to observe. But a first-chair lawyer who just finished relying on a second chair to perform a listening role may be able to give better feedback because of the intensity of that experience.