Listening in a law-school class

The fall semester has been in session now for two to three weeks. New law students have immersed themselves in class, with 40-50 hours of class logged at this point. It’s the perfect time for new law students to evaluate and adjust their own listening and note-taking during class. Enough time has gone by and enough notes taken that this evaluation will be meaningful, but there is still tons of time left, so any adjustments could make a real positive difference moving forward.

Figuring out how to evaluate your own listening is an abstract and difficult task especially in an unfamiliar academic environment with large classes and assessments few and far between. Actually on that note, law schools have been ordered by the ABA to do more “formative assessment,” meaning assessment before the final exam so that students can monitor their progress, understand how they are doing, and make adjustments. Formative assessments such as a midterm or paper won’t explicitly mention or measure listening, but they can be an important indirect clue about listening skillfulness. Students should be proactive in preparing for formative assessments and should actively seek feedback on their results.

Even before any formative assessment such as a midterm, a new law student can reflect on the classroom experience and make adjustments. One way to give some shape to these reflections is by considering what veterans and experts say. That is why, earlier this summer, I reached out to lawyers and law professors, asking for suggestions on effective listening in class. Suggestions by lawyers on what worked for them can be found in an earlier post here. This post focuses on advice from law professors themselves. What do law profs say students should listen for, in the law-school classroom?

Note, as usual, I tried to delete the “parent tweet” of me prompting the question and as usual my efforts failed. Focus on the responses, not the irritating repetition of my prompt.


Please note that another good way to evaluate your own listening is to talk with a academic-support expert. Here’s an earlier post, “Listening 101 for Law Students,” featuring that and more general advice on listening in the law-school classroom.

See also my guest post on The Girl’s Guide to Law School about a unique note-taking method that worked for me personally. I call it the #professorsays method.

Note-taking advice for law students

It’s that time of late summer when law-school boot camps and pre-orientation prep sessions start happening. I’ll be speaking about legal writing next week and note-taking skills the week after that.

For the note-taking session, I put out a call for help and got some really good responses. Here’s the call for help:

The responses covered lots of good points about note-taking. I’m re-organizing them here into a sort of chronological timeline: getting ready for class, listening in class, and reviewing after class. (Apologies for the repetition of the “parent tweet” asking for help; due to non-existent HTML skills, I can’t get rid of it despite checking the box to do so.)

Before the semester, decide on paper, highlighters, and other equipment.

Effective note-taking has elements of creativity to it, in how you capture the content of what you hear. You may want lined paper, plain paper, or paper organized for a certain note-taking strategy. Someone told me a story about their brilliant law-school classmate who took all her notes on mathematical graphing paper. The point is to prepare in advance with helpful equipment such as paper and pens that will help:

No one really talked about taking notes by laptop, which is a debate too large for this humble post. Extrapolating from the comments above, if you’re going to take notes on a laptop I would advise experimenting with apps that give you flexibility for formatting the page, using color, and otherwise doing more than just writing or typing.

Gain context before class.

The difficulty in listening to learn is that a learner, by definition, lacks the framework of an expert. (It’s sometimes called a schema.) Learners can help themselves build a rudimentary schema before class by preparing generally and specifically.

For general preparation, I was always taught to study the textbook’s table of contents. And there’s always the syllabus!

  1. Beyond the textbook and syllabus, the specific assigned reading itself may provide a framework for understanding what’s about to happen in class. This suggestion from Alex Klein shows the benefit of reading actively before class, rather than reading passively and waiting for class to clear everything up. (Hint: that’s wishful thinking in many cases.)

Listen carefully by focusing on key terms, on classmates’ contributions, and on what the professor says in expressing an opinion.

Is more always better—as in more notes, more accurately reproducing exactly what happened in the class session? #PracticeTuesday co-founder Rachel Gurvich shared a lesson learned from her law-school days:

A complete transcription is difficult and likely detracts from deeper learning while listening. But the difficulty—especially for new 1L students—is knowing what should and should not be transcribed. At first, it may be better to err on the side of transcription:

More experience in the law-school classroom should bring more discretion at what matters most. Experienced note-takers learn to recognize different categories of content as it comes out in class, such as factual distinctions and policy rationales:

Another note-taking skill in the law-school classroom is paying attention to the various perspectives offered, not just by the professor playing different sides of an issue but by classmates:

My own special twist on note-taking was to add a feature I called “professor says.” As I processed what the professor stated and asked, sometimes it would become apparent the professor was stepping out of a neutral role and taking a position on the topic. When he or she did that, I would label that moment in my notes with “Professor Says: ___” Keeping track of those moments helped me to match them up with my notes so I could be mindful of them while studying later. Here’s my guest blog post for The Girl’s Guide to Law School that expands on the “professor says” method.

Use visuals to indicate relationships and other ideas.

One less-than-effective way to take notes is uniformly and robotically writing out text from left to right on every page. A better approach is to practice active, flexible, graphical note-taking techniques:

Review and organize notes after class to prepare for outlining and final-exam prep.

Effective note-taking does not end the moment class ends. Putting those notes in a box until it’s time to study for finals is not the best advice. Rather, the advice is to use those notes sooner rather than later to review and consolidate growing knowledge:

These crowd-sourced suggestions struck me as a good starting place for 0Ls about to become 1Ls. Please feel free to share more note-taking techniques here in the comments or on social media at @ListenLikeaLwyr.

Listening Skills in the Law School Classroom

This post is for law professors, educators, and anyone interested in listening-related skills training…

Listening contributes to law students’ success in many ways. From participating in class discussion to doing good work in clinics to writing an exam that reflects what was discussed in class, students who listen effectively are in a better position to succeed in law school. They are also in a better position to effectively handle job interviews and real assignments on the job.

Law professors therefore may want to spend some time emphasizing listening skills, either explicitly or implicitly. Here are a few ideas for integrating listening skills into any law school class. Please share feedback and more ideas in the comments.

  1. Model a client interview.

Modeling means showing how to do something the right way. It could also mean showing how to do something with a mix of successful and less successful moments, then discussing the challenges and the process. Either way, students can begin to learn by seeing and hearing models in action.

Modeling a client interview is an excellent way to demonstrate effective listening. “Modeling of listening techniques makes effective practices visible to students,” writes Professor Neil Hamilton writes in his law review article Effectiveness Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills. (Professor Hamilton’s article was foundational for this blog four years ago and remains so today.)

Modeling an interview during class time would be a significant investment of class time. For teaching in clinics, this investment should pay off directly. Students who have seen and discussed effective listening during an interview are far more likely to do the same in their own work with clients.

In doctrinal classes, a model client interview would be unconventional but could demonstrate good lawyering (including listening) while also covering doctrinal material in a vivid way. One specific idea comes to mind: remedies. Clients may feel they are entitled to some particular measure of compensation that the law actually does not allow. A client interview could bring out the client’s ideas of what he or she deserves, including the lawyer’s careful listening even where the client’s damages theory cannot be supported by law. And then the discussion after the interview could address the substance of remedies as well as the interpersonal challenges of communicating with clients.

  1. Offer listening conferences with assessment and feedback.

The next step after modeling a skill is letting students try it. A “listening conference” is one way to do this, as suggested by Hamilton in his listening article. The listening conference would be a chance for students to role-play a client interview or talk about a doctrinal area of law, and then get feedback on listening.

The conversation partner would be a professor (if time permits) or perhaps a teaching assistant, or a student’s mentor in the legal community. Afterward, the conversation partner would provide feedback and assessment of the student’s listening. The feedback could involve a play-by-play of certain key moments:

  • “I felt like you really heard me when I was talked about xyz because your eye contact and body language were very receptive.”
  • “When I mentioned xyz, it seemed like you started thinking about what you were going to say.”
  • “You used active listening techniques when I described my goals as a client, but you didn’t restate one aspect of my goals, so I wasn’t sure you totally understood that part.”

The assessment could provide more structured feedback on criteria for listening. The criteria’s substance is a topic for future blog posts here. Hamilton has some sample assessment rubrics such as a student’s performance during a client interview.

  1. If you use Power Point, use it to promote listening and learning.

Reading text and listening to words simultaneously just does not work in the brain. The science suggests that far from reinforcing cognitive connections, these redundant inputs impose an “extraneous cognitive load” that interferes with learning.

That is one of many reasons it’s such an awful idea to use text-heavy Power Point slides. Use a blank placeholder slide in every presentation, advises Professor Paul Zwier of Emory Law School, author of Power Point 2003 for Professors. Navigate the Power Point to the blank backdrop when you want students to focus entirely on listening.

To promote effective listening, consider abandoning the bullet points, at least on what you show during a lecture. Intensely visual slides such as what you can make with Haiku Deck or by downloading images from Creative Commons are a great backdrop to help the audience both listen and remember what you say. Seth Godin recommends this best practice in his e-booklet “Really Bad Power Point (and how to avoid it)”:

You can use the screen to talk emotionally to the audience’s right brain (through their eyes), and your words can go right through the audience’s ears to talk to their left brain.

  1. Enforce a classroom 5-second rule.

Another common issue with listening in the classroom is that students may not have enough time to remember—much less process—what was said at key moments. The bounds of working memory are an inherent limitation on effective listening. And in the law school class, the words in a lecture and discussion sometimes come so fast and furious that sometimes students may leave the class with the feeling of “What just happened?”

One protocol that can dramatically improve listening is to impose a “5-second rule”: everyone must wait 5 seconds after a speaker has concluded speaking before raising a hand or otherwise continuing with the conversation. Mark Weisberg and Jean Koh Peters suggest this method in their paper Experiments on Listening.

They report that professors meeting with other professors in small groups found an “astonishing” benefit to this protocol. Participation was both broader—no longer favoring the gunners and turn sharks—and more thoughtful. The same benefit could extend to a law school classroom.

  1. Assign students to listen to a particular case or legal authority in addition to reading it.

Various software, browser apps, and websites can read text out loud. Hearing an entire case read out loud, rather than silently reading it on the page, is a big investment of time. But intensely engaging with one or two cases this way could assist learning, especially for beginners. To use one common error students make when learning the structure of court opinions, where does the review of precedent end and the court’s own decision begin? I believe that listening to the case could help them slow down and recognize the different components of the opinion.

(And please don’t ignore this suggestion because you think “some people aren’t auditory learners.” The idea of a learning style may reflect an individual’s desired learning preference but not necessarily a more effective way for that individual to learn any given material. See here and here.)

The suggestion to listen to a case is better suited for students’ own time outside of class. Class time could also involve short breaks from the lecture in which students read to one another. Bear with me here: Performing the law with a speaker and listener in this way could set up the significance of statutory language or a short segment of a case. The student reading the case out loud would have to decide how to inflect the reading, and the student doing the listening would get the benefit of hearing the words. It may feel forced and awkward to the students and perhaps to the professor as well, but they almost certainly would remember the language better as result of the process.

Better listening leads to better learning as well as better lawyering. These exercises are just a few ideas for focusing on listening in the law school classroom. The articles cited here contain many more ideas, and please also share ideas in the comments to this post.

Let the ice cube melt

The other day I had to have my eyes dilated. As they slowly came back into focus, I tested them on this week’s issue of The New Yorker. One of the essays focused on Allison Janney, currently starring on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation.” Janney’s character in the play owns a Kandinsky (Wassily Kandinsky, one of the first abstract artists of the early 20th Century), and in the New Yorker essay Janney was viewing a Kandinsky at the Guggenheim as she gave the interview:

On her phone, she pulled up a Kandinsky quote from the play: “It is clear that the choice of object that is one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” She grimaced. “A sentence like that is so hard to understand,” she said. “It’s like an ice cube that hasn’t melted. That’s the way my father used to talk about learning the piano or learning a language. He said, ‘It’ll melt, just give it time.'”

Kandinsky’s actual quote seemed like a legal writing professor’s dream, in terms of editing issues to attack:

  • throat-clearing language (“It is clear that…”)
  • a gaggle of prepositional phrases (“of…of…in…of…by…in…”)
  • passive voice, of course (“must be decided only by…”)

But underneath the verbiage is the artist’s essential concept. How could that wordy sentence be rewritten without changing the concept? I came up with the following:

“The artist must decide on elements in the harmony of form only by seeking a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”

This edit cuts 10 words. Is it better? Even though it reflects standard writing edits, it changed some of the original. Most obviously, obliterating the passive means adding an actor. But maybe Kandinsky wanted to hide “the artist” by using the passive. The most concrete thing in the whole sentence is the last thought—“a corresponding vibration in the human soul.” Using abstract, passive, verbose language leading up to the final culminating moment—“the human soul”—is itself a form of verbal artistry.

This conceptual verbal artistry is at home and welcome in art-theory discourse, not so much in legal writing. The values of plain language and efficient writing have little use for a quote like “It is clear that the choice of objects . . . blah blah blah.”

So after reading Kandinsky’s quote in the essay, I was ready to move on to another portion of the magazine. But luckily, I finished the paragraph, catching Allison Janney’s wonderful turn of phrase quoted from her father:

“It’ll melt, just give it time.”

I think she meant that after effort and thought by the person approaching this sentence, the sequence of words will break down. They will “melt” into meaning in the person’s mind. The sentence itself doesn’t change; after all, that’s what Kandinsky meant for it to say. But the person encountering the sentence can melt it in their own mind so it’s not so rigid and foreboding.

How does this melting occur? As Janney’s father advised her, through time and patience. Not through focused effort directly lasered onto the ice cube. An ice cube melts effortlessly through the passage of time.

This ice-cube metaphor seems to me a wonderful metaphor for learning the law as well. For new law students faced with old cases and new concepts in arcane and twisted language, at times the only logical reaction is to grimace—just as Janney did when she read the Kandinsky quote. And of course you can apply techniques, tips, and tricks (as shown earlier in this post) to break down what you hear and read into something you can actually understand and use.

But really, ultimately the only valid long-term strategy is letting the ice cube melt. It melts slowly and imperceptibly. But then, at some point, something has happened. You can speak the language, and you can play the instrument. The ice cube has melted. You are thinking like a lawyer.


Lorena Biret/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0


Learning styles, revisited

For the past month, I’ve been struggling with an ankle injury. Yesterday at the orthopedist’s office, the medical questionnaire asked about patients’ preferred learning style. The question was something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 8.21.06 AM

My answer was and remains, “ I don’t care how you give me the information as long as you fix my ankle!”

And that connects to a post from last year, “Back to school means ‘what’s your learning style?’” That post points out that learning styles are better thought of as learning preferences by individuals. It cites some research and analysis questioning whether teaching to an individual’s preferred learning style actually enhances their learning outcomes. In other words, it’s not clear that teaching to learning styles helps people actually learn.

The consensus at least among learning-style skeptics is this: learning-style preferences do not mean information actually is more effective when packaged to meet any one person’s preference. A learner may prefer to learn visually, but certain lessons about music must be presented in auditory format. A learner may prefer to learn by acting and moving, but certain math concepts must be presented visually in a formula. For physical therapy, learning by doing makes a lot of sense so you can model the right way to do the exercises. The basic takeaway is this:

The nature of the information is the most significant factor in how that information should be presented to learners.

This is an important point for those who care about good listening skills. With the popularity of texting and email and other screen-based forms of communication, comfort with and preferences for listening and face-to-face conversations would seem to be in jeopardy. Future lawyers should not use their exposure to learning styles to say, “I’m going to text the client this bad news instead of calling her because I prefer to get information in writing and visually.”

As I wrote last year, many people have written really good articles about using learning styles in the law-school classroom. And none of this is to excuse a decision by a professor to always use the Socratic method or any other default method. But it is worthwhile to question what seems to be the very popular belief that people learn information effectively when it is reshaped to fit their preferences.

Q&A with Peg Cheng, the Prelaw Guru

ChengPeg Cheng has worked in prelaw advising for more than twelve years, six and a half with the University of Washington (UW) and another six as the founder of her law school admissions consulting company, Prelaw Guru, which helps aspiring law students prepare their applications. Before that she worked in career counseling as well, bringing her grand total in higher education student services to 18 years.

And she says:

“I’m done.”

Peg is moving into full-time work as a writer. She is in the process of wrapping up Prelaw Guru as of July 2016. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Peg for sharing some of her insights from her years of experience working with aspiring law students.

What has your work in prelaw advising taught you about listening?

What really is an advisor? The advisor has two jobs: One, listen. Two, tell the truth. That’s it.

All the work I’ve done with college students has taught me to be a better listener and a better writer. I couldn’t have done it without the students. Some people think advising is about talking. But if you don’t listen first, your advice is not effective.

How have you used listening with the students you advised and your clients in prelaw consulting?

Clients always tell me they appreciate the opportunity to think about their own stories. That’s what I’ve done: listen to their stories in person, on the phone or Skype, and in their prewriting on the writing prompts I’ve given them.

I was spending so much time with the interviewing and listening that I developed an exercise called “49 Stories.” They are writing prompts to help law-school applicants brainstorm what they might talk about in their personal statements. The process is for the student to set a timer for 3-5 minutes and write as fast as they can. What I’ve noticed is that the internal editor starts to turn off.

The 49 Stories are organized to begin with “softballs”—that is, easier prompts. As the student progresses, deeper prompts are sprinkled in. Completing the exercises allows the person to first sit back and appreciate the ideas they’ve come up with—and also to start to see themes from their life.

So this was a way of saving my own time spent on all those interviews. But the writing itself helps. The more they write, the less they fear the whole process of writing a personal statement. Dyslexic students are an exception. They’re allowed to write less and then tell me more over the phone or Skype.

I read their stuff and tell them what stories I heard. They are in the middle of it and couldn’t see the stories that are valuable to tell. They would spill their guts and then didn’t know what to do after that. So, I would give them permission to write about their lives. They would say “Oh, I can write about that? I never thought of that.”  I help them see how the story is a good representation of them. 99 percent of the time, they say “You’re right, I’ve got to tell that story.” And then they crank it out.

Law school admissions officers are always telling applicants that personal statements need to be personal and about you, even if inspired by another person. Generally there’s going to be one with stronger and more personal elements. It’s almost always the most personal story. Not necessarily the most tragic, but the most personal. It’s about finding the personal in your past and ascribing meaning to it.

Some professors have said personal statements are so trite and formulaic. But I push back against that. If you’re tired of reading something formulaic, that means you’re tired of reading stories. Stories are formulaic! The subject matter changes, but the formula is the same.

The best story to tell almost always has to do with making a change. Stories are about change. And stories are really about human survival.

Law school applicants have the opportunity to meet with admissions officers at law school fairs and forums.  What’s your advice to applicants for managing those conversations?

Students go in thinking, “I’m going to apply these particular schools.” And they are listening to anything that backs up their plan. If they hear something that doesn’t back it up, they’ll stop listening.

When you are really listening, it sparks more questions. Some students are thinking so much about how they present themselves that they ask questions but don’t really listen. And honestly when I was 20 or 21, I was like that too. So let’s clarify some of the reasons this happens: Nerves get in the way. Ego gets in the way.

Students think they will impress the admissions officers by speaking—by what they say. But listening can help them create a better impression. Someone once shared with me some advice I’ll never forget:

Instead of trying to be interesting, try to be interested in.

Whenever I follow this advice, the people I’m talking with and listening to develop a higher opinion of me than if I had tried to impress by talking and being interesting.

Asking questions is a great opportunity to listen and learn. What are some of your favorite questions for law school applicants to ask?

I tell students to ask questions that most people don’t ask. For example, how frequently does the Dean meet with students? How easy is it for students to meet with the Dean? Some admissions people know this right off the bat. Others give vague answers with nothing set up institutionally. Be suspicious of that. The Dean sets the culture and attitude of the law school. Having a regular time to meet with students shows a level of care for the students.

I also ask about faculty culture. I watch how the admission person acts when answering the question. They may not have a great relationship with the faculty. Do they smile instantly? Do they look away and hesitate? For me, how they answer is as important as what they say.

What do you see in prelaw students today?

For me, prelaw students seem to fall into two major camps. They are all achievers—because the people I’ve worked with at Prelaw Guru are by definition achievers in some way—but they generally fall into two groups.

There’s a small group who are good listeners and also very humble and very skilled. They often have something like a 3.9 GPA and a good LSAT score. They aren’t perfect. They are very neurotic and worried about their future. But there’s a relationship between their humbleness, their skill, and their dedication. This is a very small group and they always amaze me. I’m always heartened to find that the most achieving students are also the most humble and the most worried.

The other group is much larger. They’ve struggled too, but I don’t know if they realized how hard law school is going to be. They’re not as worried. They tend to think they will continue doing what they’ve been doing. They may not have been challenged enough in college. They’re not arrogant, but they haven’t experienced enough to know how hard it’s really going to be. They may not have ever failed.

You mentioned a certain profile of some law students as humble but also worried. How do you think law students can cultivate their mental health throughout this process?

One of the biggest problems I see with prelaw students is they depend too much on external markers of success. They get depressed when they don’t receive those external markers, like the grade they wanted to get in a certain class. The focus on external markers leads to anxiety, drinking, and depression.

Those who are more mature realize it’s about internal markers of success. Even if they don’t get the grade they wanted, they can focus on what they learned from the class and the professor. I worked with one law student who was 10 years older than the typical law student. He grew up in a low-income area with a single mom. He said he had been lawyering ever since he was 12 years old, standing on the street corner listening to people, giving them advice, and helping them advocate for themselves. And this is the advice he gave me to pass on:

You have to rage against the machine.

The machine wants you to believe if you get high grades, you’ll be a good lawyer. If you get a big law job, you’ll be a good lawyer.

But you have to realize the machine is not you. You have to find your own version of success.

This student knew he wanted to be a public defender. He would constantly ask for help and get to know everyone both in and out of the law school who could help him toward that goal. And by his third year, he had his job offer in the public defender’s office before graduation and was ready to go.

In terms of listening, how can prelaw students get ready to be better listeners in law school and as practicing attorneys?  

Any type of work experience or internship or volunteer work where they have to listen will help them later. It doesn’t have to be legally oriented. One of my clients did customer service for a pharmaceutical company that helped her develop great listening skills. Many students I’ve met have done  intake work as an intern or volunteer where they have to interview people and then write up those interviews in a report. They benefit from understanding what it means to be of service by listening rather than by speaking. Journalism is also great.

I’m not a fan of lectures where students take a lot of notes then take a test. Sadly, many classes are taught this way. It may be necessary to impart content and a certain way of thinking to students, but I think schools with more hands-on learning in classes will have more successful students.

Students should think about how they learn best. Some can read and absorb what they’ve read. Others need to read and then reiterate out loud what they’ve read. Others learn best by hearing the material spoken out loud. There are lots of different ways of learning and the students who do the best have found ways to support or supplement their learning style.

How have you worked on your own listening skills?

The more I listen and take risks at telling the truth about what I’m hearing, the better results I get. I did a lot of own experimentation with advising during my years at the UW. Also I had several years of personal and business coach training prior to working at the UW that helped me a lot. As I kept experimenting with my students, I realized that’s what people are really looking for—for someone to listen to them and tell them the truth—even if they don’t seem to know that’s what they want initially.

What I have learned is to listen to clients and ask questions that help the client come up with their own solutions. And I tell the truth about what I heard. I try to ask questions that lead the person to the truth, for them. It’s important to understand as well that what’s the truth means different things for different people.

You are working on a career transition yourself.

I’ve always been writing on the side. Last year I wrote a middle-grade novel. I’m working on an adult suspense novel now and I’m also writing a personal finance book for college students.

This month, I’m wrapping up my consulting business and my online personal statement class. My last clients for this admission cycle have all got back to me and let me know their plans, so I feel good about that. It’s been great to help so many people, but I’m one of those people who likes more variety. And I think you should get out of something when you still like what you’re doing. So I will be a full-time writer this whole year, and then see where I’m at next January.

What’s funny is that being a full-time writer has really helped me relate more to my clients and the fears they had about writing their personal statements. They would tell me, “I don’t know if I can do it. But I keep telling myself, this is so important. This is going to decide my future.” I can totally relate to that! This is my year for writing; it’s not a year about procrastinating about writing. That means every single day, I go through the fear and the self-doubt, and just do it.