Category: Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligenceGenderInnovationLeadershipLegal communication

Listening analytics?

One of my favorite sayings is from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Slide1

Kenneth Grady’s Seytlines blog is an exercise in what Fitzgerald meant. In Grady’s essays on innovation in the legal industry—what it needs and where it is stagnating—human skills including “soft skills” have never been more valuable. Yet humans must use processes and systems and technology to avoid losing the competition to deliver value. Individual lawyers in all of their humanity have never been less expendable—or more.

Grady’s recent post Talking About Lawyer Performance illustrates the tension:

Providing legal services today involves much more than listening to a client’s problem and giving an opinion or delivering a document. It is a complex task in a fast moving environment that involves a much deeper and more nuanced understanding the environment in which the client operates. This isn’t an equation solely for large law firms and corporate legal departments, it is true throughout all levels of legal services delivery. Individuals’ lives are much more complicated today than 10, 20 or 30 years ago, so advising them isn’t as easy today as it was then.

This complexity manifests in the idea that legal-services delivery should be examined and broken into more distinct parts. This idea is pervasive throughout the legal-innovation conversation, and I’d like to think more about how it affects listening.

There may be a tradeoff in client satisfaction unless technological innovations are built with empathy and surgically precise understanding of how to approximate human interaction, and when actual real-time conversations and face time are crucial. On the other hand there will be a gain in client satisfaction if perceived unnecessary conversations where the client keenly feels the billing clock ticking are reduced or even eliminated. As I said, I’d like to think more about the delivery questions—and mostly I would just like to learn from those such as Grady and Patrick Lamb and Jeff Carr and others, the gurus in this area.

Beyond the questions of legal services delivery are deeper questions about what an individual lawyer does. (See Grady’s post on Defining the Unique Role of the Lawyer.) The analytical and problem-solving contributions are inextricably wrapped in the soft skills used to deliver them. As Grady has written elsewhere, “During the next decade, the skills that make up personality will play an increasingly important role.”

But do not believe that means the lawyer is unique beyond measure. Even the most human of human skills can benefit from systems analysis because even the most human of interactions can be measured:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.

This was the part of the Lawyer Analytics post that really stood out. This blog has talked at various times about the problem of measuring listening. If you can’t measure it, you probably can’t assess it in a meaningful way. Perhaps these “sociometric devices” are the beginning of a solution to the problem.

When I first got started blogging here, I read a difficult but rewarding academic book, Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life, in which a scholar, Frederick Erickson, analyzed detailed transcripts of several conversations recorded in 1974: a blue-collar family at dinner, a college counselor and a student who was eligible for the Vietnam draft, a combined kindergarten-first grade class, and a medical resident and intern diagnosing a difficult case. He parsed every last detail of these conversations and even showed how they could be rendered with musical notation:

image

This book is where I learned the concept of the “conversation turn,” which essentially means taking over or handing back the conversational flow to your conversation partner. (See prior post on the “turn sharks” in law school.)

How do a bunch of random conversations in 1974 relate to legal skills today? Some things don’t change: Being a good listener means mastering conversation turns to keep the conversation going without taking over.  Just refer to Pam Woldow’s lengthy discussion of “manterruptions,” and the gender imbalance in who does the interrupting versus gets interrupted, to understand the relevance of conversation turns today. (Part I of Woldow’s series is here.)

The conversation studies in Erickson’s book were fascinating but clearly expensive to create and difficult to replicate.  With newer and more affordable technology like the sociometric device described in Lawyer Analytics, people won’t need to be invited to a scholarly study to get this kind of data. (To see the logical and alarming extension of these possibilities, read this article on “searchable speech.”)

The possibilities of these devices inevitably bring to mind FitBits. Ken Grady’s boss Stephen Poor has already covered that ground for lawyering generally in “FitBits, Data and Lawyers.” On quantifying communication specifically, it seems pretty likely that we will soon have relatively affordable “FitBits” for listening.

Emotional intelligencePeople skills

No offense . . .

Today 3 Geeks and a Law Blog offers an interesting post by Casey Flaherty: “No Offense, But Aren’t You Embarrassed to Open Your Mouth?” Flaherty is known for creating the Service Delivery Review (formerly known as the Legal Tech Audit) and generally promoting efficient lawyering through technology in a variety of ways including via his company, Procertas.

Flaherty travels the legal-tech circuit, and on that circuit he recently received a potentially offensive question:

No offense, but how did a mid-level lawyer at a mid-tier company get so much pub for saying something that everyone already knows.

Flaherty’s response (both internal and external) should be interesting to readers of this blog on a couple of levels.

“No Offense, But . . .”

This phrase is not good. In a comment on the 3 Geeks post, former general counsel Jeffrey Carr (newly on board at Valorem Law Group) points out, “lawyers are particularly prone to use these kinds of ‘amnesty phrases’—phrases that give the speaker ‘permission’ to say something that appears responsive but in actuality can be non-responsive, offensive, groundless, insensitive, or simply unsupported.” A few others he lists are these:

  • with all due respect
  • I don’t disagree with that
  • It would not be inappropriate
  • It’s a business decision

I would add this gem:

  • I’m not trying to . . . . but . . . .

Somewhere on the Internet I read a great interpretation of this phrase: delete the “not” and replace “but” with “therefore”:

  • I am trying to . . . ; therefore . . .

(If a reader could help me find the origin of this great interpretation, I would be very grateful. I have tried many times to track down the source because it’s so clever.)

Slide1The main point here is that phrases such as “No offense, but . . . ” are generally not consistent with a constructive conversation. Careful observation of nonverbal cues after a “no offense” statement will probably reveal hostility and reduced eagerness to continue with good-faith conversation. (Let me rephrase: they won’t want to talk to you anymore, or at a minimum they will be annoyed.)

So those who want to work on their listening would do well to eliminate these phrases from their own working vocabulary. Honestly I would think that’s fairly obvious, but see the discussion of the Dunning-Kruger effect that follows.

“No offense, but you’re saying something that everyone already knows.”

Flaherty writes that when he received this question, he actually was not offended. In that sense he may be a particularly gifted conversationalist, or just a very peaceful person.

He writes he was not offended because he has often wondered the same thing. Is what he is preaching really common knowledge? He then delves into the nature of ignorance and knowledge, as general concepts and specifically in his area of legal process and technology usage.

The first point of interest is “meta-ignorance” or delusions of inadequacy—that is, the Dunning-Kruger effect: the most ignorant do not know what they don’t know. I think he’s saying that since there are enough lawyers out there ignorant of their own ignorance about process and technology improvements, technology innovators in law have to keep going and spread the word.

His second point is that saying something and actually demonstrating it by doing are two different things.

And third, information is only common knowledge if everyone in a group not only knows that information but also knows that the rest of the group knows that same information. (Check out the links in his post for more interesting backdrop on each of these points.)

What I liked about his post for Listen Like a Lawyer is that I’ve gotten similar comments:

No offense, but it’s obvious that listening is valuable and under-appreciated. You’re saying something that everyone already knows.

So Flaherty’s response is helpful to me as well. Modeling Casey: I shan’t take offense when people suggest listening is obvious. I have that same question!

Regarding the problem of meta-ignorance, just as legal process improvements may not be appreciated by those who labor in a state of low-tech, inefficient ignorance, listening too may be a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Here I couldn’t help but think of legal writing by comparison. Listening in the legal profession receives a fraction of the attention legal writing gets from articles, blog posts, tweets, and comments by judges and Supreme Court Justices about what attorneys need to do better. And even with all that coverage, Dunning-Kruger remains a real problem for poor legal writers, as my friend Scott Killingsworth has pointed out, leading to this discussion by Bryan Garner. If it’s possible to exist in a state of meta-ignorance about one’s legal writing, how much more so is that a problem for the relatively less-appreciated skill of listening?

Also listening skills are much more subtle and hard to recognize and assess, whereas bad writing can seem so glaring. The red squiggly line on Microsoft Word’s grammar checker is at least one tool that the meta-ignorant have going for them to try to overcome that state. There is no grammar checker for listening.

Another point of interest is the nature of knowing something and doing something about it. We all know listening is important and valuable. But how many lawyers really do something about their own listening or training others in effective listening? It’s worth continuing to talk about listening to try to bridge that divide between saying and doing. Personally I try to walk the walk by being a good listener. It can be quite difficult. Sometimes I will write about that here, and through sustained effort over time, maybe this blog can offer some lawyers the tools they need at the right moment to become stronger listeners or encourage others to do the same.

And lastly, to track Flaherty’s analysis, what exactly is “common knowledge” about listening in the legal field?

I don’t think the legal community’s common knowledge—that we all recognize as common knowledge—is all that fleshed out or deeply shared. Law professors such as Neil Hamilton have worked to enhance that body of knowledge. Despite such efforts, I worry that the actual common knowledge in the field may boil down to two words: active listening. That isn’t enough.

I want to do more on this blog to help expand that base of common knowledge, or create a conversation about what it might be. I’m still reading and learning a lot, so this is very much a work in progress. No offense.

Thanks to Casey Flaherty of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog for an interesting post prompting these thoughts. 

Emotional intelligencePeople skills

Listening—and speaking—in a time of grief

Carolyn Elefant, solo practitioner and blogger at My Shingle, is a valuable source of wisdom and advice, as well as some spicy and entertaining sarcasm.

But earlier this year she shared a beautiful post of grief and remembrance after the death of her husband.

Today she follows up with a related post, When Faced With Loss. Say Anything. This post should be read by any law student or lawyer whose colleague or client may die or face the death of a loved one—which is to say it should be read by all law students and lawyers. Especially those who care about kindness.

I recently fielded a question from a law student whose supervisor’s mother had just passed away. She was not sure whether to send an e-mail, write a personal note, or say anything at all. For business colleagues, as Carolyn points out, just acknowledging their situation and their grief is so much better than avoidance. Even if you say or do the wrong thing, it’s better than not trying.

Emotional intelligenceLegal communicationLegal writing

Lucky listening object?

This summer I had the pleasure of reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by a longtime copy editor at the New Yorker, Mary Norris. This book is a pleasure, something you can tell just by the epigram:

IMG_3693

Later on, Norris expounds at length upon the editor’s pencil—not in a Platonic sense, but in the sense of the actual pencils and pencil sharpeners she uses for her tasks. Her favorite is the Blackwing, a premium and pedigreed pencil that promises “half the pressure, twice the speed.” (The smooth writing experience will appeal to certain pen fanatics as well.)

IMG_4590

On Norris’s recommendation, I ordered a box of Blackwings, specifically the Palomino Blackwing 602 model. They really are pretty awesome, from the silky flow onto the paper to what Norris describes as the chiclet-shaped eraser. Her loving and detailed description of trial and error before finding the Blackwings also imbued them with a special sense of purpose. As a legal writing professor, I began to think about whether law students would benefit from having some sort of totemic editor’s tool. This does seem appropriate, since lawyers should be editors as much as writers.

And as with many of may daily activities (see Orangetheory post from last week), I wondered whether this idea of a special writer’s tool could apply to the complementary skill of listening. What could lawyers and legal professionals use as an expert tool of the trade, giving their listening a special sense of purpose? The ideal tool would be subjectively powerful for the individual using it and carry some historical or contextual significance as well to help the individual perform the task in the aspirational spirit of the profession. (The Blackwing website promotes a myth like this through the pencil’s history: discontinued in the 1990s and then brought back in the 2010 after some were paying up to $40 per pencil for remaining stock.)

But listening is a receptive communication channel, in contrast to writing and speaking. What does the idea of a special tool even mean for receiving information rather than making it?

The first thing that came to mind is the art of taking notes. It’s not listening exactly, but it’s an artifact of listening. When I asked academic-support expert Moji Olaniyan how she works with students on their listening, she said the first thing she looks at is their notes, and they way they take notes. (More specifically, Moji Olaniyan is Dean Olaniyan, the Academic Dean for Academic Enhancement at the University of Wisconsin.)

One revered method for taking notes is the Cornell method, described by Lisa Needham in an updated Lawyerist post just this week. The note-taking method itself does not demand any particular purchase since any paper can be used with a few lines drawn to create a left margin and summary at the bottom. However, the Levenger notebooks are one way to spend on this method if desired. For practicing lawyers, of course note-taking does not go away after law school, although it changes form. Lisa’s post offered some interesting glimpses into what note-taking looks like in law practice.

Note-taking can also go multimedia such as with a Livescribe pen that records while you write. This pen may not make listening feel sacred and special the same way the Blackwing works for Mary Norris. Rather I suspect it would make one feel a tiny bit like an engineer (or spy?), which could be good in a different way—assuming it’s legal and culturally acceptable to record audio wherever you may use it.

But note-taking is just a proxy for listening, and only in situations where note-taking is socially acceptable.

What about the listening act itself—the experience of taking in the information, and the speaker’s perception of being listened to? In social situations, people may grasp a glass of wine or a Coke, a reminder in the hand of social cues to follow. Grasping a warm cup (including but not limited to a cup of coffee) may help with social interactions, scientific research has suggested.

On the other hand, have you ever been in a conversation where it seems to be going pretty well and then you see the other person’s eyes dart sideways, as if looking down at a phone—even if they’re not actually doing so? They may be drawn to another “talismanic,” “fetishistic” and “fanatical” object: the “amulet” of the smartphone.

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.

5447958713_050cab91aa_b

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Client developmentEmotional intelligenceLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal writing

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.

Emotional intelligenceLaw schoolLegal communicationLegal educationPeople skills

Law-school prep for listening skills?

‘Tis the season of advice for 0Ls, meaning those about to enter law school this fall. While reading Scott Turow’s One L and banking some “me” time are both great, 0Ls might want to think about their listening.

I once heard a law professor say that starting law school is like learning Chinese by being dropped from an airplane into a community where only Chinese is spoken. Law-school prep classes, boot camps, and online programs have sprung up to help students make the transition. Perhaps a law-school prep course is a little bit like reading a grammar guide and a few key survival-oriented sentences before the big drop.

Courtesy Flickr/Steven Depolo/CC by 2.0

Courtesy Flickr/Steven Depolo/CC by SA 2.0

But there are ways to prep for law school without paying a fee, such as “by visiting your local Barnes and Noble.” Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick and Getting to Maybe by Richard Fischl and Jeremy Paul are often recommended. These books are great, and as a legal-writing professor when I’m not blogging, I especially recommend Plain English for Lawyers. I would also add Barry Friedman and John Goldberg’s Open Book as a new and popular contender in the law-exam-prep market.

But the skills these books ultimately focus on—writing legal documents and exam questions—are partially the artifacts of earlier skills in reading and listening. What about targeted prep for these skills?

For reading, future law students may want to take a look at Ruth Ann McKinney’s Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert. I also like Wilson Huhn’s The Five Types of Legal Argument. It’s not about reading per se but about the major building blocks of legal opinions and legal reasoning generally.

For listening, I’m not aware of a specific book focusing on listening for pre-law students. (Hmmm….)

If there were such a book, what would it cover? Here’s a thought experiment on what pre-law students could do the summer before law school to enhance their listening:

  • Acclimate to the pace of a law school class.

Incoming law students could search for a few lectures on YouTube and sample what they really sound like and how they move. Socratic interchanges and professorial pauses may be new experiences. Class can move slowly or very, very fast.

Some students may want to work on smartphone etiquette and attentiveness so as to avoid distractions during class even when it seems to move slowly. This in turn is good practice for avoiding smartphone distractions during meetings and interviews with clients and others as a practicing lawyer. Even if a student loses no actual information by looking at a smartphone during class, that student may be sacrificing the speaker’s good impression.

  • Start to develop a note-taking method.

It is difficult to decide how to take notes in class before actually attending many—or any—real classes. But having a note-taking strategy in place before the first class should allow students to get more out of the first few classes and to adjust more quickly with experience. Lisa Needham published a post in the Lawyerist about the famous Cornell note-taking method, which she described as a way of “hacking chaos.” On a more specific note, I guest-blogged about one strategy,  #professorsays, at The Girl’s Guide to Law School.

  • Integrate reading and listening on a particular case.

This is somewhat idealistic, but the idea is as follows: the reading raises questions and makes the student curious to find out whether and how the professor answers those questions. Then the student listens effectively in class because of having context (from the reading’s facts) and being curious (from the student’s questions). And then the student’s engagement with the material in class means the student will have even better questions to formulate when doing the next set of readings in preparation for the next class.

One way to practice this integration of material without doing a prep class would be to use the power of YouTube: find a YouTube video discussing a particular case, then read the case before fully viewing the video. Or read a Supreme Court case and then listen to the oral argument audio on oyez.org. Listen for the concepts in the questions and answers that you remember in the opinion itself. I would suggest the audio arguments in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. as an entertaining and educational opportunity. (Here’s the Supreme Court’s written opinion.)

  • Prepare yourself to ask questions—good questions—when you are confused.

While listening and reading can be a virtuous cycle, most law students also have the experience of feeling really lost and confused at one point or another. Throughout the semester, and not just in the final push of studying for exams, students should monitor their own listening and thinking to recognize confusion setting in. Starting a conversation with the professor by asking good questions is one way to address a creeping sense of confusion. If asking a question after class is too crowded or just uncomfortable, go to the professor’s office hours or make an appointment.

Asking “good questions” is something great future lawyers learn as soon as possible. It’s not just “Help. I’m confused.” That’s fine for a trusted study group but not so helpful for interacting with a professor. To make a better impression as well as start a more helpful conversation, ask questions the explain what you know and don’t know. For example: “I think I’m confused. Here’s what I believe I know. Here’s what I think I heard you say. Where I’m not seeing the connection is why . . . ”

A law school prep class may give the opportunity to ask this kind of question. Outside of a prep class like this, listening to a law-school lecture on YouTube and then formulating some hypothetical questions. Or the same idea could be accomplished with a different communication medium. A student could read some difficult material and then imagine questions for a professor about what the student understands and where that understanding trails off into confusion and questions.

What else? Listening to people.

Effective classroom listening is valuable and necessary for law-school success, but not actually sufficient for good lawyering. What about the kind of listening lawyers really do? Lawyers talk to people (some friendly, some not friendly) in real conversations, in order to learn the facts, glean motivations, find out what else needs to be known, and discern how to make recommendations and arguments. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. The point is the intellectual listening integrating large blocks of topical detail in the 1L year is very different from the kind of listening lawyers actually do. A student might find it difficult to follow three classes on what constitutes various types of offers, but that same student might find herself highly motivated to interview a client about an alleged agreement starting with a so-called offer.

So here’s a proposal for some unorthodox advice on law school preparation, with a particular focus on listening. In the summer before law school, volunteer to take an oral history for an archive project. Interview an older relative about some aspect of his or her life. Tutor a kid one-on-one. Invite a potential mentor to lunch and get that person talking about life and law school and law practice.

It’s not exactly sipping piña coladas and having “me” time by the beach. Some of those suggestions may actually involve writing! But spending time in conversations like this will build listening skills. And it may even build up resilience and motivation—qualities that will definitely be needed later, to get over the hump of the 1L year.

Client developmentClinical legal educationEmotional intelligenceFact investigationLaw firm management

Two hemispheres of law practice

 Securities law and divorce law. Lawyers in these practice areas may not be from different planets, but they live in different “hemispheres,” according to sociological work being explored by Deborah Merritt at the Law School Café. Her first post is here and second post here.

Flickr/CC by SA-2.0

Flickr/CC by SA-2.0

Merritt is revisiting the study Chicago Lawyers by sociologists John Heinz and Edwards Laumann. This study generated the “hemispheres” metaphor for categorizing the work done by lawyers:

Heinz and Laumann concluded that a “fundamental distinction” divided lawyers into “two hemispheres.” One group of lawyers “represent[ed] large organizations (corporations, labor unions, or government),” while the other “work[ed] for individuals and small businesses.” The division between these two was so sharp that “[m]ost lawyers reside exclusively in one hemisphere or the other and seldom, if ever, cross the equator.”

The concept of these two hemispheres immediately brought to mind potential differences in listening. Here are some exploratory thoughts. More are certainly welcome in the comments.

First-hemisphere listening

Listening in the “first hemisphere” means listening to large organizations. A single organization may or may not have a single “voice,” notwithstanding established lines of communication between the lawyer and client. A lawyer who represents an organization must know how to listen efficiently but broadly to the different perspectives of that organization. For example, what if the client contact urges an aggressive approach in a particular matter, but the key witnesses are unwilling or ineffective?

First-hemisphere listening may also involve heavy use of e-mail to enable simultaneous communication among a group. This could mean losing the nonverbal nuance of spoken conversation, as many critics of e-mail have pointed out. It’s a truism of e-mail skills that the best communicators know when to pick up the phone.

Listening to an organization also means sensing whether the key players remain satisfied with the work. As I recently heard a law firm’s chief marketing officer say, “When a [big] client isn’t happy with your work, they don’t tell you, because they don’t like confrontation. They just stop giving you any more work.” She made a great case for how a marketing officer in a big firm can help with listening to clients and teasing out more of what they really think.

Second-hemisphere listening

Listening it the “second hemisphere” would involve a different set of challenges. This second hemisphere brings to mind the more traditional image of listening such as one-on-one meetings where the lawyer listens actively and builds rapport. Perhaps the lawyer must guide the conversation to legally relevant facts, while respecting the client’s need to be heard. Many (almost all?) lawyers in this hemisphere also need strong skills in cross-cultural lawyering to be able to effectively listen to and problem-solve with their clients.

The business of law works plays a role here as well: lawyers must work on efficient yet welcoming intake procedures and appropriate listening behaviors from any staff who interact with individual clients. (See Lee Rosen’s tale of woe on Divorce Discourse, in which he interacts with a law firm in an attempt to refer some business.)

Why do these hemispheres exist?

So in terms of listening, are the two hemispheres more different or more alike? To think about that, we should think about why these different hemispheres exist in the first place. Merritt considers several factors such as income and power. Ultimately, she suggests—drawing from Heinz and Laumann’s work as well as Andrew Abbott from the University of Chicago—that the real issue is “professional purity”:

By professional purity, [Abbott] means the ability to resolve problems primarily through application of the profession’s own principles. The most prestigious professionals apply their knowledge to particular problems, but they do not grapple directly with messy facts or human emotions. Lower status professionals, in contrast, resolve problems that reflect a full range of “human complexity and difficulty.” (Andrew Abbott, Status and Status Strain in the Professions, 86 Am. J. Sociology 819, 823 (1981).

This idea helps to delve into the listening question. For the first hemisphere, perhaps listening takes a background role to the foreground role of legal analysis and problem-solving driven by that analysis. As Merritt writes, the lawyer’s role here is doing “some of the most ‘legally’ powerful work in the profession” such as examining “statutes, rules, and precedents to construct new, advantageous ways for the client to conduct its business.”

The privileged role of the lawyer here, doing this “legally” powerful work, perhaps can generate leeway for how and when the lawyer communicates. In the classic law-school legal-memorandum assignment, the legal analysis may lead to additional facts to investigate. Not knowing all the facts to investigate up front does not bring blame on the lawyer because unique legal analysis drives what needs to be known. Individual contacts in an organization may or may not be impressed with a particular lawyer’s communication skills, but one person’s experience may not be the most important criteria for selecting counsel.

Moreover in the first hemisphere, the organizational client’s workplace culture itself may discourage the expression of “messy facts and human emotions.” A non-emotional workplace culture could thus reduce the expression of these emotions in interactions with lawyers. (Merritt implies and I would argue that an emotion-suppressing workplace culture does not in fact mean the effective first-hemisphere lawyer need not worry about those emotions. More on this in a moment.)

For the second hemisphere, perhaps there is more obvious, explicit pressure on listening. It is certainly what is needed to deal with the “full range of ‘human complexity and difficulty.’” For individual problems that can’t really be solved with a neat legal solution, listening can go a long way toward helping and healing. An individual client may not know social-security law, but that client can recognize whether the lawyer is doing a decent job of listening. And the individual client may be less constrained on finding new counsel if the client feels dissatisfied. (However, lack of experience with lawyers and lack of a consumer mentality may cut the other way.)

Ultimately, Deborah Merritt suggests that the differences between the first and second hemisphere are less than we might think:

“Both hemispheres involve mundane, repetitive tasks, as well as intellectually challenging work. Similarly, effective education of ‘second hemisphere’ lawyers is just as intellectually demanding as that for ‘first hemisphere’ ones.”

First-hemisphere lawyers who refuse to delve into “messy facts” ultimately do risk their relationship with organizational clients. Merritt cites the facts that corporations complain when their law firms do not take the time to really understand their business.

What does this mean for law schools?

Merritt makes a number of points about teaching and scholarship. The “most important changes we can make in law schools, for all clients and lawyers” is to reduce the focus on appellate decisions. Instead, she argues law schools should bring client interaction into the entire law-school curriculum, including the sacrosanct first year.

In this way, students would be better prepared for their work as lawyers, in either hemisphere. Perhaps ultimately this type of reform would begin to erode distinctions between hemispheres as well, although they are very deeply rooted, as the sociologists work has repeatedly showed.

Client developmentClinical legal educationCollaborationEmotional intelligenceEthics

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?