Category: Ethics

Clinical legal educationDispute resolutionEthicsLaw school skills competitionsLegal education

A Winning Approach to Negotiations: Self-Awareness, Flexibility, and Practice

lee-headshot-2-1Guest post by Katrina June Lee, Associate Clinical Professor, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

On September 21, the Moritz College of Law hosted the incomparable Marya Cody Kolman as its 2016 Lawrence Lecturer, named in honor of lawyer and law school educator James K. L. Lawrence (Moritz ‘65).

A Yale Law grad, Kolman is a long-time adjunct professor of negotiations and coach for The Ohio State University’s ABA mediation advocacy team. For more than 30 years, Kolman has helped train OSU law students to be, in her words, “high-quality ethical representatives.” Kolman’s full-time day job, since 1999, is Director of Mediation Services at Franklin County Domestic Relations Court in Columbus, Ohio.

In giving this year’s Lawrence Lecture, Kolman drew from her deep negotiations experience. The Lecture took place in the law school’s large auditorium and was attended by students, professors, and practitioners.

Kolman’s main theme for aspiring effective negotiators could be summed up as follows: reflect on and identify your own negotiating tendencies, build into your repertoire styles that do not come naturally to you, and practice so that you can adapt to any type of negotiating situation.

She started the lecture with a very telling story that revealed her main theme.  Over the years, as a coach for OSU’s ABA mediation advocacy student team, Kolman noticed that OSU’s team regularly beat teams that had practiced for months and months (sometimes years). Yes, OSU law students were (in Kolman’s words) “simply amazing” and benefited from education in an outstanding law school dispute resolution program. Still, Kolman wondered if there was something about their competition preparation that made OSU law students especially effective.

A winning approach

After some reflection and investigation, Kolman discovered that the OSU teams benefited from not being scripted and not being coached to follow a fixed protocol. Kolman learned that some law schools tried to script the roles for their students or require that they negotiate in a certain way. This approach to preparation differed significantly from Kolman’s approach.

Kolman described the OSU team approach, which emphasized self-awareness and flexibility. Coaches first watched the students and observed their negotiation styles. The coaches noted the students’ strengths and challenges as negotiators. They then helped the students build on their own style and be more effective negotiators using existing strengths. This approach proved to be much more effective than giving students a script or a fixed protocol on how to negotiate.

OSU team coaches had identified a winning approach. The approach focused on developing self-awareness about students’ “natural” negotiation styles and tendencies, and helping students build on their strengths and develop the ability to use other styles when situations called for them.

Raw talent is not enough. Be prepared.

Kolman emphasized that “raw talent” is not enough to be a successful negotiator. Lawyers need to learn about different styles and skills and practice them. Only through that exploration and practice can a lawyer learn what works best for him or her. Kolman coached the audience: Develop strengths and expand on them. Avoid “forcing yourself into a style that does not work for you.”

Even though everyone has negotiated before law school, whether at the grocery store or with family members at home, Kolman cautioned, lawyers should not enter negotiations without training, forethought, and preparation. As I tell my negotiations students, preparation is key.

When Kolman practiced law as a domestic relations attorney, she negotiated with opposing counsel on a daily basis, with 95 percent of cases settling before trial. Most opposing counsel were well-prepared, but some were not. Those who were not would come into the negotiation and start flipping through their files trying to figure out what was going on in the case. Not surprisingly, in those instances, Kolman was usually able to negotiate a very favorable settlement for her client.

Steps to effective negotiating

Kolman offered these steps for any law student or lawyer to become a better negotiator:

Analyze your personal negotiation style and preferences.

One place to start is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument. For a price, a person can assess which conflict-handling modes he or she is overusing or underusing. The five conflict-handling modes are competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating. Kolman noted that, without paying for the T-K Conflict Mode Instrument, you can still assess your conflict-mode tendencies through honest hard reflection.

“Think about what’s you” and work on styles that are “not you.”

Once a person has identified personal preferences and tendencies, Kolman urged audience members to “think about what’s you,” maximize your own tendencies, and work on other styles that may not come naturally. Bringing together the strengths of “natural tendencies” and an ability to use other styles as needed will help a lawyer become a well-rounded negotiator. For example, the lawyer who naturally tends to use an accommodating style will find it helpful to learn how to use a competing style so he or she can use it when needed.

Learn about different negotiation styles and practice.

Training and practice help build effective negotiation skills. Kolman commented that “the beauty of a negotiation class” is that “you can try things out.”

Always be willing to learn the interests of your client and the other party.

Kolman emphasized the importance of learning the interests of a client and the other side. This can help with problem-solving and collaborating to find a solution that all parties are happy with. In our negotiations courses at OSU Moritz College of Law, students learn skills that help with exploring interests, including active listening, asking helpful questions, and achieving an optimal balance of empathy and assertiveness in a negotiation.

Kolman encouraged all aspiring negotiators to work on being more self-aware about personal tendencies, understand that raw talent is usually not enough to be an effective negotiator, and to practice styles that do not come naturally.

After reading this post, consider what your personal style is in handling conflict, and try a different one.

 

Sources cited in the 2016 Lawrence Lecture (arranged alphabetically here):

Roger Fisher, William Ury & Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes, 2nd Ed. (Penguin Books 1991).

Gary Goodpaster, A Primer on Competitive Bargaining, 1996 J. Disp. Resol. 325.

Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Toward Another View of Legal Negotiation: The Structure of Problem Solving, 31 UCLA Law Review 754 (1984).

Robert H. Mnookin, et al., Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes (Belknap Press 2000).

Andrea Kupfer Schneider, Shattering Negotiation Myths: Empirical Evidence on the Effectiveness of Negotiation Style, 7 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 143 (2002).

Richard Shell, Bargaining Styles and Negotiation, 17 Neg. J. 155 (2001).

Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful for this post by Katrina June Lee, Associate Clinical Professor and a member of the Dispute Resolution faculty at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, where she teaches Legal Negotiations and Settlements. Moritz’s DR program is No. 1 in the 2017 U.S. News & World Reports ranking of law school DR programs. Professor Lee notes her thanks to Marya Kolman for her insightful Lecture and for sharing her notes and slides for use as background for this post, and to Professor Ellen Deason for her review and comments on this post.

 

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?
EthicsFact investigationLaw schoolLegal communicationLegal education

Core professional qualities of lawyers

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptability and Dealing with Unpredictability

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

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

Courage

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

Diligence

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

Empathy/Compassion

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

Generosity

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

Humility/Respectfulness/Courtesy

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

Patience

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

Perseverance

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

Professional Objectivity and Sympathetic Detachment

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

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


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

EthicsLegal communicationPeople skillsProfessional responsibility

Is It Ever Okay Not to Listen to Your Client?

Listening to clients seems like mostly an affirmative duty, if only an implied one. But in writing about lawyers’ duty *not* to listen to represented parties, I began to wonder about the limits of a lawyer’s duty to listen to clients as well:

  • Can a lawyer ever choose not to hear what the client has to say?

  • Can a lawyer be present with a client and let the client talk out loud, but choose not to really listen to or process what the client is saying?

  • Can the lawyer listen to what the client is saying but choose not to act on it? Does the lawyer ever have a duty not to act on what the client says?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/angelic0devil6/467237778/in/photolist-HhHvL-HGdT8-Riwce-Riwnp-RiwwR-2Tf2ed-34AQow-3aLY5v-3d48zj-45vDqy-49UDFf-4kujXq-4yChDW-4yCimf-4GKihK-4KWatE-4Yzb7n-51vNQx-57ZZjx-5iA8jF-5jFfnA-5u9Vwq-5zmMme-5GsSdf-5Kbm9E-5KjKV1-5L8qsz-5PaU1k-62TLyt-65VcvS-6bWW22-6fSY7K-6fXb7y-6vzTE4-6HFaMq-6KtFRn-6KxS9C-6MjYsu-6RkPgi-6RrhfC-6S5yDN-6WF4tA-6YAGUb-7cXT8E-7gbajM-7ig31K-7mfaBM-7qPVQn-grUpc1-8dEHHe-dfAgkY/

L. Whittaker/Flickr

The main area where a lawyer might have the ethical discretion not to listen to a client, is in dealing with clients who have diminished capacity. Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.14 sets out a lawyer’s obligations and options in representing clients with diminished capacity:

(a) When a client’s capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a representation is diminished, whether because of minority, mental impairment or for some other reason, the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.

(b) When the lawyer reasonably believes that the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken and cannot adequately act in the client’s own interest, the lawyer may take reasonably necessary protective action, including consulting with individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client and, in appropriate cases, seeking the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.

(c) Information relating to the representation of a client with diminished capacity is protected by Rule 1.6. When taking protective action pursuant to paragraph (b), the lawyer is impliedly authorized under Rule 1.6(a) to reveal information about the client, but only to the extent reasonably necessary to protect the client’s interests.

As the language shows, the rule has several guiding principles:

  • preserving a lawyer-client relationship that is as close as possible to a relationship not involving diminished capacity
  • allowing the lawyer to seek help from third parties when necessary
  • not allowing the lawyer to substitute his or her judgment for the best interest of the client, as Elizabeth Laffitte points out in her article Model Rule 1.14: The Well-intended Rule Still Leaves Some Questions Unanswered (LexisNexis).

Echoing and developing Rule 1.14(a)’s requirement of a normal client-lawyer relationship, comment 2 specifically focuses maintaining communications:

The fact that a client suffers a disability does not diminish the lawyer’s obligation to treat the client with attention and respect. Even if the person has a legal representative, the lawyer should as far as possible accord the represented person the status of client, particularly in maintaining communication.

The rule is thus quite clear that the lawyer has the same ethical duty to listen to the client as applies to clients without diminished capacity. The question then becomes how to carry out this duty for a client with diminished capacity.

Choosing not to hear

For example, what if a client has sporadically compromised mental statestimes when the lawyer can barely follow, much less understand, what the client is saying? Can the lawyer treat the client with attention and respect while also effectively choosing not to hear what the client has to say?

Good lawyers recognize and accommodate these peaks and valleys in clients’ abilities to communicate.

519519_1281451903     “Many times, a client may have diminished capacity, but still be pretty lucid at certain times during the day,” notes attorney Adrienne Ashby of the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline, a project of Atlanta Legal Aid and other Georgia agencies.

Comment 6 to Model Rule 1.14 explicitly instructs lawyers to take into account their clients’ “variability of state of mind” as well as their known long-term goals:

 In determining the extent of the client’s diminished capacity, the lawyer should consider and balance such factors as: the client’s ability to articulate reasoning leading to a decision, variability of state of mind and ability to appreciate consequences of a decision; the substantive fairness of a decision; and the consistency of a decision with the known long-term commitments and values of the client. In appropriate circumstances, the lawyer may seek guidance from an appropriate diagnostician.

Thus, once it becomes clear a client is in a temporarily compromised state of mind, a lawyer could indeed choose neither to hear nor listen to a client. Ashby suggests that “[a]n attorney would do well to try to communicate with the client during the lucid times, so as to try to ensure that what she hears from the client is something that she can act upon.”

Choosing not to listen to contradictory statements

A different hazard may arise when the client seems lucid yet makes contradictory statements in the same conversation. Under Rule 1.14, the lawyer cannot substitute his or her own judgment about the client’s best interests. But can the lawyer selectively listen, giving greater weight to the portions of the conversation that the lawyer believes to be more in the client’s own best interests?

Better for the client and less risky for the lawyer would be to seek clarification using listening techniques such as the active-listening response of rephrasing what you have heard:

 “Mr. Jones, you said earlier that you would like to put your daughter’s name on your retirement account so that she can use the money for the grandchildren. But then you stated that you wish to disown your daughter and remove her from all your accounts entirely. It is not possible to do both of these things. Which would you like to do?”

Using active listening in this way permits the lawyer to pinpoint areas of uncertainty and also to counsel the client on proceeding.

Listening to third parties

Clients who may have diminished capacity may have family, friends, or others assisting them with their legal affairs. From her work on the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline, attorney Adrienne Ashby describes a common scenario: “The client contacts me to discuss a legal issue, and there is a family member in the background ‘coaching’ them or filling in what the client leaves out. It becomes really hard not to listen to this family member and to only listen to the client.  It is even harder when the client repeats what the person says.”

The ethics of this situation are fraught, writes Stanley Herr in Representation of Clients with Disabilities: Issues of Ethics and Control (Hein Online).

On the one hand, family members and close friends know the client and often do have the client’s best interests in mind; they may be the only voice that can fully speak about the client’s values. Thus listening to these voices can be indispensable.

But on the other hand, the voice of the client should remain paramount. Conflicts of interest abound in these situations, Herr writes, “especially where institutionalization, control of financial resources, or other life-determining choices are at issue.”

Comment 3 to Model Rule 1.14 acknowledges this exact situation and allows friends and family to assist. Yet the client’s interests and the client’s decisions must remain paramount:

The client may wish to have family members or other persons participate in discussions with the lawyer. When necessary to assist in the representation, the presence of such persons generally does not affect the applicability of the attorney-client evidentiary privilege. Nevertheless, the lawyer must keep the client’s interests foremost and, except for protective action authorized under paragraph (b), must to look to the client, and not family members, to make decisions on the client’s behalf.

Disregarding what the client has said

What if the client makes a clear, lucid statement that appears to run totally against the client’s interest? The lawyer must evaluate both the client’s ability to communicate as well as the client’s decision-making ability, under comment 5 to Model Rule 1.14:

If a lawyer reasonably believes that a client is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken, and that a normal client-lawyer relationship cannot be maintained as provided in paragraph (a) because the client lacks sufficient capacity to communicate or to make adequately considered decisions in connection with the representation, then paragraph (b) permits the lawyer to take protective measures deemed necessary.

The lawyer has a menu of options under Model Rule 1.14(b), although none of them is easy. Comment 5 provides an overview:

Such measures could include: consulting with family members, using a reconsideration period to permit clarification or improvement of circumstances, using voluntary surrogate decisionmaking tools such as durable powers of attorney or consulting with support groups, professional services, adult-protective agencies or other individuals or entities that have the ability to protect the client.

The option to use a “reconsideration period to permit clarification or improvement of circumstances” suggests that the lawyer may indeed choose not to act upon what the client has said he or she wants to do—at least for a while.

Conclusion

These situations are too sensitive for a rigid rule about what a lawyer must listen to or disregard.  Rule 1.14(a) says the lawyer “shall” maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship to the extent possible. Rule 1.14(b) gives the lawyer the option to take steps when the client is at risk. Rule 1.14(c) clarifies that the lawyer must maintain client confidences except when necessary to protect the client’s interest under Rule 1.14(b). There are no neat solutions and a lot of judgment involved. Listening with discernment is a crucial part of that judgment.

I hope this post will open up an opportunity for lawyers to discuss their listening challenges—and possible solutions—in representing clients with diminished capacity. Thank you.

 

EthicsLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

Lawyers and biased listening (part 2)

Reducing bias in listening is important yet difficult, as discussed in the first post on listening and cognitive bias. This post explores some of the most well-known cognitive biases and how they may impact lawyers’ listening, with some suggested solutions from the cognitive-bias literature.

Halo

The halo effect

Kahneman introduces Thinking, Fast and Slow with one of the most obvious cognitive biases:

“When the handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, . . . you can anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favorably than he deserves. The availability of a diagnostic label for this bias—the halo effect—makes it easier to anticipate, recognize, and understand.”

Kahneman’s example focuses on physical attractiveness. But the halo effect is not limited to attractive speakers.  The halo effect is in essence “[t]he tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed.”

A halo effect can arise out of any trait. Based on one single attribute, whatever it may be, the halo effect biases the audience’s thinking toward everything else. As Kahneman points out, “the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted” (emphasis added).

Lawyers trying to be unbiased listeners should guard vigilantly against the halo effect. One of its particular dangers for lawyers is “suppressed ambiguity.” Once the halo effect takes over, ambiguous information will be interpreted consistently with the halo effect’s bias.

Solutions?

  • Having a label for the halo effect goes a long way toward combatting it, Kahneman points out. So try to label what is happening. When you can recognize that your thinking is being affected by a bias such as appearance or shared affinity for a school or team or musical style, you can trigger your more analytical thought process to start “thinking slow.”
  • Manage how you gather information, to the extent possible. Information sequence can introduce a halo effect. Lawyers who filter cases with intake specialists are doing this, to an extent: studying a case on paper can help combat halo effects such as potential clients who present well but have weak cases and clients who are rough around the edges but have strong cases. The structure of an intake form itself can help combat the halo effect by forcing certain questions. As Kahneman recognizes, following a checklist is one way to battle the influence of bias.

Confirmation bias

The halo effect is closely related to confirmation bias: “our tendency, when receiving new information, to process it in a way that it fits our pre-existing narrative about a situation or problem.” Basically the confirmation bias distorts our thinking about the world to guide it toward the way we already think about the world.

Confirmation bias is discouraging to think about both politically and professionally. Confirmation bias “shuts down creativity” and shows up as “arrogance” and “bad listening.” For lawyers, a classic case of confirmation bias is not being able to recognize or accept that a formerly high-value case may not, after discovery, be as fantastic as it first seemed.

Confirmation bias also operates in small-scale contexts such as the flow of a conversation. When someone speaks up in a conversation with comments leaning one way or the other, that person’s confirmation bias may then shape the way she hears the rest of the conversation.

When you nod or cross your arms in response to information, your own positive or negative body language could affect how you continue to process the flow of information. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy has written and spoken about, body language can change not only others’ perception of your power status but also your own internal hormonal balance and behavior. (Others have noted the link between nonverbal behavior and confirmation bias as well, such as this Forbes article.)

Solutions?

  • Try not to let a large, complex decision become overly influenced by an initial, small decision in that area. One good solution is to seek out input from a group, where the members of the group have each assessed the same question independently. For example in valuing a case, asking a colleague to look at the facts and value it (without knowing your own assessment) would help check your work for confirmation bias.
  • Slowing down enough to consider the analysis while asking questions from different angles can help combat confirmation bias, as suggested here. Lawyers have the benefit of analytical patterns such as “What would the other side say?” and “How would a judge look at this?” But at the same time, these patterns of thinking could create a confirmation bias toward lawyerly pessimism. Examining the question from different angles also means asking whether an intuitive “no, this won’t work” could be turned into a “win-win.”
  • In conversations lawyers may want to hold themselves back from commenting too soon on a matter. Whether an initial comment is a hesitant “here’s why it won’t work” or an enthusiastic “yes!”, once the listener has chimed in with an opinion, confirmation bias will make it hard for the listener to interpret the rest of the conversation in an unbiased fashion.
  • Lawyers should also be vigilant about their own strategy for managing conversations. Taking over a conversation may be necessary to keep it relevant and efficient. But taking over a conversation also implicates the confirmation bias of the one managing the conversation. Information that doesn’t fit the dominant narrative may be suppressed.

Emotional biases

Certain cognitive biases have a stronger impact on those who are in a good mood. And it is stronger for people who are powerful or who at least feel powerful. The larger idea, as Kahneman writes, is that “[a] good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down.” When that happens, our critical-thinking skills relax somewhat, and the automatic aspects of our thought processes run the show.

These considerations are important in a number of listening situations. Having a face-to-face conversation with a trusted and longtime client may provoke positive mood and possibly also a feeling of power. The positive mood and feelings of power could conceivably affect the lawyer’s cognitive processes.

For example, when fielding the client’s questions about the probability of success in a future matter, the lawyer may rely more heavily on the ease of remembering other recent victories. The lawyer may also want to continue to appear highly effective, and thus may answer questions more quickly and a bit less cautiously.

Likewise, lawyers conducting fact investigations might consider whether they feel positively toward the witnesses they are interviewing. It can be hard to detect that a very likeable person is not being forthcoming. The “affect” bias—having positive feelings of liking toward something—can impact decision-making.

Solutions?

Although it is true that pessimistic thinking is less vulnerable to bias, the solution for lawyers is not to cultivate bad moods and negative thinking. The solutions to affect bias run along the same lines as suggested above:

  • Being aware of the affect bias can help lawyers use their people skills for friendly conversations, of course, without abandoning their critical thinking skills, of course.
  • Using tools such as checklists can help insulate perceptions and decision-making from bias.
  • Delaying answers to questions raised during a friendly conversation can preserve time for slow, careful thinking.

Conclusion

The biases discussed above (the halo effect, confirmation bias, and affect bias) deal with perception and liking, such as liking your own beliefs and the people you’re dealing with. A third and final post in this series will address some additional cognitive biases that can impact lawyers’ analysis and listening:

  • the “anchoring effect,” which occurs when someone offers up the first number in a negotiation, thus anchoring further talks around that number; and
  • the “availability bias,” which distorts our thinking based on the availability of information in our working memory.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comment box or through social media or e-mail. How have you seen cognitive biases affecting the work of lawyers in their role of listeners or otherwise? How have you confronted the impact of these biases?

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Listening to children: practice pointers from an expert

Listen Like a Lawyer welcomes guest blogger Karen Worthington, a writer, consultant and children’s policy attorney.

Writer, consultant, and children's policy attorney Karen Worthington

Karen Worthington

A recent verbal exchange with my five-year-old ended like this:

Impatient mother: “We are going to be late for practice. I told you three times to pack your snack and water. Didn’t you hear me?”

Unflappable daughter: “I heard you, I just didn’t listen.”

My daughter’s statement both captures why miscommunication is so frequent in our lives and illustrates a key difference in how young children and adults communicate. Young children live in a world of concrete concepts. To them, to “hear” is to know there is a sound going on around them. To “listen” is to accept and process information that is being conveyed to them. Listening and hearing are two distinct actions and listening is not always a subset of hearing.

Truly listening to children is one of two things attorneys must do to effectively work with child clients. The other is understanding child development. Although child development is not a class found in any law school, lawyers working with children and families cannot effectively communicate with or build a case involving a child without understanding where that child is developmentally and how that impacts the issues in the case.

What is a child?

In the legal world, a child is a person who is not yet a legal adult. For most purposes, the age of adulthood is eighteen, which means that a “child” could be seven days or seventeen years old. Because of the wide range of developmental and chronological ages and abilities falling under the legal umbrella of “child,” when discussing how to work with children it is helpful to group children by developmental ability.

The developmental stages of childhood are generally categorized as infancy, toddlerhood, early childhood (ages 3-6), middle childhood (ages 7-11) and adolescence. While the exact ages and stages may vary among developmental experts, the fact remains that the skills and approach needed to listen to a child vary according to the child’s developmental age and stage. Each stage includes social, emotional, cognitive, motor and other changes that affect how a child interacts with (i.e. communicates with) his or her world. Furthermore, developmental theory provides only a framework for working with children. Each child is unique, developmental stages are not linear, and a child’s cognitive abilities may be affected by trauma, fear, hunger, excitement, tiredness, medications, hormonal changes, the setting in which the conversation takes place, and many other factors.

How to listen to children

As with any other client (and perhaps more so than most clients), attorneys need to spend time with and get to know their child clients. Listening to your child client in different settings at different times will teach you how to best communicate with that child. A preverbal infant is just as capable of carrying on a conversation as a 15-year-old, if you know how to “speak” and “listen” in the infant’s “language.” Following this post is a list of resources to help lawyers communicate with children of different ages.

There are some general guidelines that apply across the stages of childhood. First, establishing rapport with a child is essential in a way that it is not with adults. Most of the time, adult clients seek your services because they want your help with a problem and they understand the attorney-client relationship. In contrast, most child clients encounter you because of bad things that have happened in their lives and almost always, they did not seek you out–you were assigned to work with them by some other adult. Even when you represent youth accused of breaking the law, which is most analogous to a situation in which you would encounter an adult client, the youth’s perception of your role is not likely to be similar to an adult’s perception of it.

Connect with children

Rapport is essential because broadly speaking, young children will want to be agreeable and please you and adolescents are likely to distrust you. Therefore, young children need to be comfortable enough with you to disagree or correct you rather than always giving the answer they think you want to hear. Older youth will need to be comfortable enough to share relevant information with you and not just tell you what they think you would want to or should know. All ages need to feel comfortable enough with you to share information they may feel is embarrassing or shameful.

Understand the child in context

A second general guideline is to speak the child’s “language.” Learning the child’s language comes in part from understanding child development (such as when children can understand abstract concepts, compound sentences, time, space and size comparisons, etc.) and in part from understanding the world in which the child lives–physically, culturally, socially and emotionally.

To understand a child in the context of her environment you need to see the child in her home or school and you probably need to observe interactions with important people such as parents, siblings or peers. You also need to be able to talk about what is important to the child. If you work with tweens and adolescents, read some magazines targeted to that age group, find out what music is popular with the teen and his friends and listen to it. Know something about what the youth is interested in, whether it is college basketball, pro football, the latest dance craze or the newest viral video. You probably can’t bill for watching music videos, but the improved ability to relate to your client is a huge payoff.

Don’t just talk; do something

A third general guideline applicable to most youth is to interact with them rather than interrogate them. Instead of a traditional one-on-one conversation which, for lawyers, often includes a desk and taking notes, it is best to engage in an activity with a child. For young children that might be coloring or playing with trucks or dolls, for older youth it might be playing a card game that doesn’t require much concentration, swinging at the park or walking around the neighborhood.

Having something to focus on other than an adult asking questions tends to make a child more comfortable. For many children, the only time they sit and talk to an adult without doing something else is when they are in trouble. Because of the setting in which you talk with a child, you may not be able to take notes, so you need finely honed listening skills.

Be honest; be real

A fourth general guideline is to be genuine and keep your word. Children have a sixth sense for insincerity and a finely attuned BS-o-meter. Develop rapport but still be yourself. Maintain boundaries. You are the responsible adult in a relationship where there is a power imbalance. You are their lawyer not their friend. Don’t overpromise and always follow up. Be clear and do what you say you will. Most of the time children have lawyers because other adults have failed them. Do not be another adult who lets them down.

Listen with your heart as well as your ears

A final piece of advice is be prepared to be surprised. When we allow ourselves to listen to children, we are likely to be surprised by their wisdom. Children’s insights and observation can be biting in their honesty. Appreciate the profundity in simple statements such as “I heard you but I didn’t listen to you.”

Resources

Click on the resource title to open the URL.

ABA training video, “Interviewing the Child Client: Approaches and Techniques for a Successful Interview 

ABA Center on Children and the Law

CASA of Arizona online training segment, “Interviewing Children”

National CASA article excerpt, “Interviewing Children” (PDF)

NJDC training module “Talking to Teens in the Justice System: Strategies for Interviewing Adolescent Defendants, Witnesses, and Victims”

“Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective, 3rd Edition,” by Anne Graffam Walker, et al, published by the ABA Center on Children and the Law (July 2013)

Author bio

Karen Worthington is a writer, consultant and children’s policy attorney who has spent the last 19 years working to improve children’s lives as a policy wonk, educator, author, child law and policy center director, nonprofit leader, legislative advocate and children’s law expert. Her consulting website is http://www.karenworthington.com and her writing website is http://www.lightningboltwriting.com.

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The Lawyer’s Ethical Duty Not to Listen

Lawyers have a duty to listen to their clients, as discussed in an earlier post. Lawyers also have a duty not to listen to certain information.

Do not listen to a person represented by another lawyer.

A lawyer may not listen to information provided by a person represented by counsel, as set forth in Model Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2. In short, communication with a represented person is a terrible idea! The rule itself says that in representing one client, a lawyer “shall not communicate about the subject of the representation” with another person represented by counsel. (Exceptions apply when the other person’s lawyer has consented, or when a court order or other law allows the communication.)

Listening includes having other people listen.

Lawyers may not circumvent the prohibition on communicating with represented parties by having non-lawyers take over the communication. Rule 8.4(a) defines professional misconduct to include violations done “through the acts of another.”

Listening is still listening, even without asking a single question.

The prohibited acts of listening include completely passive listening as well as active questioning. In In re Howes, 940 P.2d 159 (N.M. 1997), the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld sanctions against a prosecutor for listening to several statements by a criminal defendant without his defense counsel’s knowledge. The prosecutor did not initiate the communications and never asked a question during any of these statements. He merely “listened to everything defendant had to say.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court roundly rejected the idea that this was not communication: “To argue that one does not violate [the precursor to Rule 4.2] if one does not ask questions or impart information borders on sophistry. People do not compromise their positions or waive their defenses by listening to an attorney; they do so by talking while the attorney listens.” The attorney, who was quoted by the court as lacking remorse for his actions, was publicly censured and ordered to pay costs.

Unethical listening isn’t limited to dealing with represented parties.

Inappropriate listening could subject a lawyer to discipline under Rule 8.4 even if it does not involve communications with represented parties. Rule 8.4 defines professional misconduct to include conduct “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

For example, in In re Matter of Schwartz, 599 S.E.2d 184 (Ga. 2004), a lawyer accessed and listened to voicemails at the firm where he no longer worked. He went on to randomly delete some of them. The lawyer admitted violations and was suspended under a voluntary plan, which the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed. The reasoning in the case did not separate out the wrongfulness of the act of listening to the voicemails from that of randomly deleting some of them. The court found suspension is generally appropriate when “a lawyer knowingly engages in conduct that is a violation of a duty owed to the profession, and causes injury or potential injury to a client, the public, or the legal profession.” This case is among those listed in the ABA Annotations to Rule 8.4.

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Trial lawyers: five key contexts for listening

Effective listening has universal themes, such as the role of focused attention. But much of listening is also context-specific. Listening in a public meeting is obviously different than in a one-on-one conversation.

Trial lawyers face at least five distinct listening contexts. Each presents different listening opportunities and challenges. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to share this Q&A on listening contexts with trial lawyer, mediator, and trial-advocacy instructor Jay D. Brownstein.

brownstein-photo-L

LLL: Jay, thank you for your time. What do you think are the most important contexts that trial lawyers need to be thinking about when they think about their listening?

JDB: Generally speaking, there are several areas where trial lawyers need to effectively listen:

  • First, when speaking with potential and existing clients.
  • Second, in witness examination, both in deposition and at trial. As lawyers, we are often intent on covering a predetermined outline of topics and questions. But effective advocacy requires us to carefully listen and respond to what the witness is saying.
  • Third, communicating with judges at the trial and appellate level.
  • Fourth, communicating with juries. In voir dire, you listen intently to potential jurors’ answers, looking for clues as to their beliefs and predispositions. In trial, you must “listen” to nonverbal communication from jurors (as well as witnesses and the judge).
  • Fifth, mediation, an important tool for conflict resolution. It has become a necessary aspect of litigation and requires strong listening skillls.

LLL: What are the listening challenges in conversing with a potential client?

JDB: The initial client interview can be especially challenging because the client and attorney have somewhat different goals. The client wants to tell her entire story, while the lawyer is trying to quickly determine if the client has a case worthy of further exploration.

In telling their stories, clients usually don’t know what facts are important. They frequently spend time telling you things that may have little legal significance, while leaving out truly important details. The lawyer must carefully listen to what the potential client is saying (or not saying), but also guide the conversation to facts important to the legal claim analysis.

So there is a constant tension between allowing the client to talk (and being professional and courteous), and quickly learning the necessary facts to make a case determination.

LLL: How does the listening task change when your potential client becomes your actual client?

JDB:  Throughout a representation, it is critically important to maintain effective communication with your client, which always requires listening. Clients often try to tell us things that can be very important to a successful outcome of their case, although we may not always be receptive to it. For example, to effectively advocate pain and suffering in a personal injury case the trial lawyer needs to fully explore and come to understand how the client’s injuries have affected them.

In all cases, it is critically important to develop and maintain a relationship of trust with the client that can only occur through effective listening. If clients are to entrust us with their most important confidences—which can be crucial to achieving a successful result in their case—they must know that we are listening and trying to truly understand them and their circumstances.

LLL:​ I saw a statistic from one state’s court system that only 7 percent of cases go to trial. That means a lot of them settle, and the mediation process plays a major role in settlement. How can lawyers use listening to help their clients during mediation?

JDB:  Over the past 10-15 years, mediation has evolved to become the primary means of resolving cases short of a jury trial. Available statistics suggest that a high percentage of mediated cases settle either at mediation or shortly thereafter.  For example, the EEOC reports that in 2012 over 76% of its mediated cases settled within 100 days after mediation. For clients and their lawyers, mediation is often the last best chance for a certain resolution without putting their fates in the hands of strangers (juries and judges). Lawyers should not only prepare themselves for mediation as though preparing for trial (by reviewing all discovery, depositions, research on key legal issues, etc.), but they must also prepare their clients.

This preparation involves not only explaining the mediation process, but also listening and openly talking with clients about their expectations. It does little good to tell a client what she can expect in a mediation without also helping her to set goals and manage her own expectations. Listening plays a key role in this – you must first learn and understand how a client thinks before attempting to help modify that thinking and allow for the best chance of a successful mediation.

LLL:  If the dispute lasts long enough, at some point, the lawyer will take and defend depositions and eventually examine witnesses at trial. What do you think are the keys to effective listening in the context of witness testimony?

JDB:​  Particularly in early years of practice, many lawyers prepare for depositions and trial testimony by developing extensive witness outlines covering numerous topics and containing detailed questions (sometimes including the expected answers). But as trial lawyers well know, testimony never goes exactly as planned or scripted, especially in the case of direct testimony. Learning to get the witness talking, listening to what the witness actually says (as opposed to what we expect or hope to hear), and following up to the actual responses, is critical to effective examination. This is something that, like many experienced practitioners, I am constantly aware of and seeking to improve upon.

The more an examination, even cross examination, is like a true conversation with each side listening and responding to the other, the more effective you can be at eliciting key points (good and bad) you want the jury (or judge on summary judgment) to hear and remember. All witnesses can surprise and frustrate a trial lawyer; the key is to listen and understand what you can and can’t do with a witness.

LLL: For the trial lawyer, a very important audience is the trial judge. How can lawyers use listening to better understand the trial judge?

JDB:  All trial judges are busy with heavy case dockets, and appreciate brevity and clarity. On any given civil motions calendar there could be 40 to 50 cases. The judge needs to know what type of matter is before her (discovery motion, procedural issue, etc.), what she is being asked to do, and why. Judges will generally tell you what they need to understand or hear in order to issue a ruling.

The most skilled lawyers I have observed listen carefully to questions from the bench, whether directed to them or opposing counsel, and react by instantly tailoring their argument to the point or points the judge seems most interested in or confused by. Most importantly, the best lawyers don’t waste the court’s time with unnecessary argument. If a judge indicates, directly or indirectly, that they likely agree with you, acknowledge it and move on. If there is nothing further to say, stop talking and sit down.

LLL:When cases do go up on appeal, listening during oral argument is another intense experience. What are the listening challenges of oral argument, and how do you deal with them?

JDB:  ​In appellate advocacy, the same principals apply but with even greater force. Accomplished appellate lawyers say that the best appellate arguments are like living-room conversations, except that the advocate’s window of opportunity to persuade is narrow and can easily be lost if the lawyer does not carefully listen and directly respond to questions.

Usually, a question from the bench is much more than an opportunity to expound on an issue or portion of your prepared argument. It tells you exactly which part of your argument is most troubling to the court or to the particular judge with the question. And it gives you the chance (in 60 or 90 seconds) to persuade that judge, and perhaps others, to your position.

Preparation is key, as you must anticipate and be ready to immediately give your best response to a myriad of issues and related questions from the bench. But absent insightful listening, the chance to persuade will be lost.

Jay, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with Listen Like a Lawyer.

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Profile of a great listener—and what lawyers can learn

“Listening well is a gift.” Malcolm Gladwell explores the gift—and curse—of listening in this BBC profile of Vietnam consultant Konrad Kellen. The profile has some fascinating and sad insights into 20th-century politics and war. But the main point is to explore Konrad Kellen’s abiding gift as a listener. Although Kellen’s work was in public policy, his listening gift has something to teach lawyers as well: he listened without a biased ear, and he listened to all the relevant information in forming his analysis.

Setting biases aside, or at least trying to

Kellen was effective as a listener primarily because he could set aside his biases. Gladwell describes Kellen’s rare ability to really understand field interviews with North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. He didn’t filter the information through a bias of predicting U.S. victory, as did other policymakers who ultimately carried the day.  This prevailing bias not only clouded policymakers’ understanding of the data but also blocked them from accepting what Kellen learned from really listening to the North Vietnamese.

Listening without bias is really crucial for good lawyering. Lawyers’ bias can interfere in many forms, from bias in favor of the client, to bias in favor of the status quo, to bias in favor of personal benefit or avoiding embarrassment or risk. Truly effective listening requires accurate and objective interpretation of the message being heard. In this way, effective listening is difficult to distinguish from critical thought itself.

Listening deeply and thoroughly

Related to Kellen’s lack of bias was his ability to listen to all of the information and then synthesize it. He didn’t stop listening when he heard what supported the prevailing view, as Gladwell describes his work with extensive North Vietnamese interview transcripts. And Kellen was able to interpret seemingly conflicting statements together in a way that produced a deep understanding of the subjects’ real mindset toward the war.

Likewise, lawyers certainly should listen comprehensively, recognizing the relationships among discrete bits of data within the message. The press for efficiency and the lure of confirmation bias both can interfere with effective listening. Although lawyers must work efficiently, effective listening also means listening thoroughly and persistently, at least well enough and long enough to be able to hear conflicting information when it exists.

The curse of effective listening?

Gladwell ultimately suggests that Kellen’s effective listening was something of a curse. Gladwell points out the “great irony” that “[t]he better listener you are, the less people want to listen to you.”

This idea of listening as a curse seems less applicable to lawyers. Of course, knowing something that others can’t or won’t appreciate—whether gleaned through listening or otherwise—is difficult. Most lawyers will probably face that situation during their careers.

But as a sweeping statement, it does not seem to ring true that lawyers who listen well are less likely to be listened to. Indeed, just the opposite seems more likely in the small-group dynamics common in law practice. By deeply listening to the messages that clients, judges, mediators, opposing parties, witnesses, and others provide, lawyers can make themselves far more effective when they do speak up for their clients.