Category: Law school

Law schoolLaw school prepPrelaw

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.

Law schoolLegal communicationLegal educationLegal skillsLitigation

The 4 T’s of Listening

One of Listen Like a Lawyer’s most enduringly popular posts is “A Model of Listening.” The honest truth about why it’s so popular appears to be that students enrolled in listening classes are doing searches like these:

models of listening
model of listening
HURIER model
HURIER model of listening

One clue that these are college students is the timing of these searches: they tend to spike toward the end of the fall and spring semesters. I had actually never heard of a college course in listening until starting this blog two years ago. That’s when I found Judi Brownell’s textbook, Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills. One of the blog’s earliest posts was that Model of Listening posts exploring the “HURIER” model and how it fits with lawyering. (HURIER stands for Hearing, Understanding, Remembering, Interpreting, Evaluating, and Responding.) Apparently a lot of students are assigned to write about this model.

Thinking about college classes in listening leads, inevitably, to thinking about the idea of a law school class in listening. I am not aware of any law-school class focused directly and solely on listening in the way a legal writing class focuses on writing, for example. (Please comment or e-mail if this is not correct.)

Of course listening is directly involved in any class with interviewing, deposing or examining witnesses, or negotiating. It’s a small but crucial part of effective oral advocacy. And part of the overall motivation for Listen Like a Lawyer is that listening plays a subtle role in just about all law school and lawyering activities. A more effective listener is going to be better at taking exams based on in-class material, better at writing papers building off of class discussion, and better at handling skills classes and clinics. Essentially, listening helps in any context where other people are involved. (Professor Tami Lefko presented a menu of ideas for incorporating listening throughout the law-school curriculum at the 2014 Biennial Conference of the Legal Writing Institute, with slides available here. Her awesome collection of listening-related YouTube clips is available as a guest post here as well.)

At the conclusion of my legal writing class, I like to talk about the content of the class and next steps for the students using the following framework, the 4 T’s:

  • Tradition
  • Trends
  • Techniques
  • Transfer

The same framework could be useful in shaping a law-school listening course. So here’s an exploration of what the final class session might look like in a law-school listening class.

Tradition

Listening has its traditions (which have been covered and practiced throughout this semester). Perhaps the listening tradition most deeply embedded in law comes from the conflict resolution field. Mediators seem to have the most training and, in the mediators I’ve been lucky to meet, the most personal affinity with the value of listening. In mediation, the chance to be heard is respected if not absolutely paramount. The mediator’s role in “nuanced listening” for the real conflict is crucial.

Advocacy presents the opportunity for high-stakes listening. Lawyers who examine witnesses must be able to listen to a witness, echo the testimony when needed, and recognize what is not being said. (The same is true of listening to opposing counsel.) There is a strong tradition of listening as part of appellate advocacy as well: Listen to the specific question and respond to it. Listen to the overall feel of the bench and adjust your argument accordingly.

Unfortunately what seems to be the most significant actual or perceived listening tradition is the law is this:

Lawyers are terrible listeners.

This recent observation from John Suh of Legal Zoom may capture it all:

It does not seem a stretch to say the legal profession attracts talkers, not listeners. Any traditions of listening within the legal profession must thus reflect a knowledge of the audience. Essentially, many bad listeners will only want to get better if they think it’s in their self interest. That was one lesson of experience suggested by Debra Worthington, a professor at Auburn University and experienced trial consultant as well as co-author of another college listening textbook. In this sense listening can be coached in a somewhat Machiavellian way, like mindfulness coaching for Type A personalities.

Trends

Legal project management is one movement with listening-related implications such as planned and spontaneous face-to-face meetings. When is face time valuable or a waste of time? What about collaborative platforms that allow clients and lawyers to access and monitor each other’s work real time, with no “wall” of email protocol to separate the work from the communication about that work?

“Social listening” on social media channels is not really listening at all, but it speaks to the way business is done and people communicate today. Lawyers interested in social media will encounter advice to engage in social listening essentially for marketing and understanding how they and competitors are perceived. “Listening” on social media is also of course a trend in juror and witness research.

Returning to depositions for a moment, court reporters may give way to voice recordings and digital transcriptions, a controversial topic to say the least. (How would a listening course be graded? A lot of ideas come to mind and frankly many of them involve some aspect of writing about listening. For example, a good essay question in a listening course would be to discuss the movement toward “digital court reporters” and what that would mean for the judicial process.)

Artificial intelligence-enabled devices that can detect facial expressions—and perhaps predict lying—will be an interesting development to watch as well. Wearable “sociometric devices” may be able to measure and report a person’s ratio of talking to listening.

Techniques

Techniques of listening would of course include “active listening” as well as “passive listening,” as outlined in Professor Neil Hamilton’s law-review article Effectiveness Requires Listening.

There is also the technique of fact investigation that involves first listening with open-ended questions throughout the witness’s first narrative, and then reviewing each step with closed questions to firm up the information.

The art of asking good questions is so critical for lawyers not just in litigation but in any activity including—importantly for those who need to earn a living in private practice—marketing.

And listening for what isn’t being said is one of the most challenging and valuable skills a listener can work on. (Peter Drucker is the most often quoted on this point:  “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”)

Those are just a few examples of the “listening toolkit” lawyers can develop.

Transfer

As with any skill, the ideal is to be able use that skill in a variety of settings beyond the specifics of how it was taught and learned. This is the core of what “learning transfer” mean—transferring learning to new contexts.

Listening skills could be transferred in a myriad of ways. Strong recall of spoken language is always a benefit, but has to be adjusted for the social context. For example, a lawyer may show a high level of skill at remembering and echoing key parts of a witness’s answer and moving forward in an unforgettably effective direct or cross before a jury. However, this echoing might seem aggressive and/or robotic in a private and casual conversation with a prospective client. A subtle and selective echoing could work quite well. Or, weeks later, a thoughtful handwritten follow-up note that paraphrases the conversation can make a very positive impression.

One of the most difficult questions about lawyers and listening is the role of trust. Lawyers simply cannot deeply and trustingly—and naively—listen with an open heart in a combative deposition or negotiation. Different listening skills are required in collaborative and competitive contexts. Even with clients, too much trust may lead to trouble:

But if lawyers transfer distrustful listening to all contexts, that’s really not good either. Several great posts have been written on bad things that happen when lawyers bring certain communication techniques home with them, as in “6 Things We Learned in Law School that Shouldn’t Be Tried at Home.”

And even within work-related contexts, there is certainly room for lawyers to compassionately listen to one another. Perhaps a stronger listening culture with in the community could in some way help ameliorate some of the stress and alienation, not to mention substance abuse and depression, that afflicts the legal profession. Practices such as bar-sponsored “take opposing counsel to lunch” events are a start.

Learning is a process

The ultimate message of this “traditions-trends-techniques-transfer” framework is that learning doesn’t end—or at least it shouldn’t end, and for the truly effective lawyers and lawyer students it never ends—when any given class is over.

Where does this leave the lawyer who wants to be a better listener? For one thing, the lawyer can seek training and the opportunity to reflect on his or her current skills as a listener. Here are a few CLEs related to listening that were offered this past year: “Civility Skills CLE: The Art of Listening” and “The Ethics of Listening—and Not Listening—to Your Client”. I am fascinated with the idea of actors teaching “improvisation CLE” and hope to take one of these classes sometime. On a more traditional note, in a few weeks I will have the privilege of taking an intensive mediation class and fully expect it to address listening in depth.*

Beyond CLEs, lawyers can read about listening, not only on blogs (ahem) but also books such as Thanks for the Feedback (which is about taking feedback effectively and has a lot to say about listening more generally) or Power Listening (which is more in the strategic, utilitarian school of listening). A thoughtful and challenging legal blog that often touches on listening is Lee Rosen’s Divorce Discourse. (For example here’s a post on how not listening is one of the worst mistake a lawyer can make in an initial consultation.) Kenneth Grady’s Seytlines blog and other writing touches at times about listening to corporate clients in the context of larger themes about legal-services delivery and innovation. (Here’s his “5 Reasons to Become a Doctor Dolittle of Client Communication.”)

That’s at least 75 minutes worth of material to talk about. So that’s  the end of these hypothetical lecture notes for the hypothetical final class in a hypothetical law-school listening course. Good luck and please stay in touch.

*Side note for 2016: I’ve also recently had the pleasure of meeting and talking with several listening experts who are working on a potential listening CLE at the International Listening Association’s meeting in Tucson in March 2016. I may have the opportunity to be a guest speaker or contributor in some way, and will let blog readers know more about that as it develops.

Bar exam prepClinical legal educationLaw schoolLegal communicationLegal education

How important is listening to new lawyers?

What do new lawyers actually do?

In a 2013 report, the National Counsel of Bar Examiners studied this question in detail by undertaking a very large survey of practicing lawyers (attempting to reach 20,000 lawyers although ultimately receiving usable survey data from 1,600). They result of this survey was the “Job Analysis Survey,” The key points of which can be found in this summary. (The survey methodology is described in the full report here.) The purpose of this survey was to provide “a job-related and valid basis for the development of licensing examinations offered by NCBE.”

Hat tip to Professor Ben Bratman of Pittsburgh for discussing this report in his recent post on bar-exam and legal-ed reform. Analyzing the results of the survey, Professor Bratman organized the numerous skills included in the survey into five groups: communication, analysis, research, project management, and professionalism. He suggested that this framework may be useful for developing learning outcomes in law school, particularly in response to new ABA guidelines.

The list of most highly rated skills and abilities was of particular interest here as well. Here’s the top ten:

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 1.06.53 PM

As you can see, listening was the third most highly rated skill, with respondents ranking it a 3.60 on a scale of 1-4 in terms of significance and 99 percent of newly licensed lawyers needing to perform this skill. (Apparently one percent of lawyers need to write but don’t need to listen, since the only skill that garnered 100 percent was written communication.)

In addition to the very broad category of “listening,” other related skills of interest included #2 (paying attention to details) and #10 (knowing when to go back and ask questions). Listening seems correlated with #5 (professionalism) as well. “Interpersonal skills” almost made the top ten, coming in at #13 with a 3.44 significance rating and 99 percent of newly licensed lawyers needing interpersonal skills.

Chart reprinted by permission of the National Council of Bar Examiners

Law schoolLegal educationPeople skills

Back to school means “what’s your learning style?”

The idea that each learner has an ideal learning style—that is, a style such as visual or aural or kinesthetic, in which they learn most effectively—remains unproven. Yet it appears to be wildly popular and naturally appealing to both teachers and students. The new school year seems like a hot zone for this idea to proliferate anew.

Before delving into the research on learning styles, let’s preempt some backlash. Of course different students have different strengths and weaknesses, and of course different students have different preferences and habits for studying and learning. That’s not the problem.

What remains unproven is that a given person learns “best” in a particular learning style that is different from the way another person (with a different learning style) learns the same materialHere’s UVa education professor Daniel Willingham summarizing his critique of learning styles as a theory. Here’s another article by two psychology professors summing up the studies finding no support for learning styles, including one that tested medical students.  A frequently cited 2008 study by four education professors concluded  “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” 

Learning styles are so appealing and so omnipresent from preschool to graduate school that it can be hard to accept they are some sort of “myth.” A helpful illustration comes from neuroscientist Christian Jarnett in Wired Magazine:

[A]lthough each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Similarly, studying sculpture is not done best by reading long texts describing said sculpture, as pointed out this helpful and balanced piece from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Christian Jarnett goes on to argue that adhering to learning styles as a teaching method is not just a benign misconception but actively harmful. It encourages teachers and learners to direct their teaching toward existing areas of strength, given that “style” may function as a proxy for existing ability and preference. Dan Willingham would also say that mixing teaching styles in the interest of meeting different learning styles in a group may also be harmful, or at least not as beneficial as believed, if doing so works to the detriment of teaching the particular subject matter in the most appropriate way.

This is where listening comes in. When people are surveyed to try to determine their dominant learning style (or preference), listening—i.e. auditory learning—does not tend to rank as a top choice. Legal educator M.H. Sam Jacobson suggested a ranking for law students as learners: most law students report being verbal learners (learning by reading), followed by the next-most populous group of visual learners, followed by oral learners (learning by talking) and only then by auditory learners who learn by listening.

And because auditory learning is relatively unpopular, teaching to preferred learning styles could effectively hurt students’ listening skills even more. Under this theory, if a law student feels most comfortable as a visual or verbal learner, should that student thus learn to represent clients by looking at photographs of clients and reading scripts of interviews with clients? Clinics and externships offer incredible opportunities to interview clients, to take notes, to negotiate, to go to court—to do a lot of things that don’t neatly fit into the most popular categories.

It seems unlikely that an idea about learning styles would dissuade someone from clinic work. What I’m more concerned about is the way learning styles might subtly affect law students’ habits and beliefs: A law student might gain the notion he or she learns particularly well by reading and visuals, more so than by listening, and thus steer her way of thinking and studying towards words and images and away from talking and listening. Or struggle with taking notes in class or interviewing a client, and conclude that part of the reason is a learning style other than auditory.

Law students need to develop all modalities to be effective practitioners. . . . [R]egardless of whether one self-identifies as a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile learner, lawyers regularly use each of those modalities in practice. They process information by reading and synthesizing legal authority and documents obtained during discovery, for example, and act on oral directives from clients, judges, and colleagues.

This is from an excellent, in-depth, and critical yet constructive exploration of learning styles in legal education, Aïda Alaka’s article Learning Styles: What Difference Do the Differences Make?, 5 Charleston L. Rev. 133 (2011). Alaka carefully explores other frameworks for learning styles besides the “visual-aural-kinesthetic” model which is the main focus of this post. She ultimately concludes with the pragmatic notion that teaching material in a variety of ways beyond (1) assigning cases and (2) employing the Socratic method is certainly a good thing. (Hear, hear!)

She also suggests that while listening should not be neglected, reading will remain the most critical skill:

[R]ecent empirical studies suggest that developing law students’ critical reading skills and literacy are paramount to successful law school performance. Regardless of desire or preference, law students should understand that learning through reading is, and is likely to remain, the principle method by which they will absorb new information in law school and beyond.

In reading for this post, I came across a completely different type model formulated by educator Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do:

  • Surface learners “do as little as possible to get by”
  • Strategic learners “aim for top grades rather than true understanding”
  • Deep learners “leave college with a real, rich education”

Just on its face, this framework bears parallels to listening. Surface listeners may just take in the key points and miss information as well as subtle cues. Strategic listeners may deploy active listening and other techniques, but miss opportunities to follow up and dig because they seize conversational cues to begin talking again. Deep listeners make the most of precious face time spent with conversation partners, leaving the conversation with a “real, rich” sense of learning information and building relationships through their communication skills including listening.

I look forward to reading more about this framework and exploring how learners who may fit into each of these categories can enrich the way they learn, and especially the way they listen.

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Blogger’s note: People I greatly respect have written about and at times touted the benefits of teaching to individual learning styles. In fact I myself gave a 2006 presentation about using visual tools to teach legal writing, which I based partly on the idea of visual learners as a significant component of the law-student population. My post here does not in any way change my admiration for the scholars and educators who have studied learning theories including as learning styles in the quest to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.

Law school

Law-school roundup (fall-semester edition)

FullSizeRenderAs 2Ls and 3Ls return to the classroom and new law students start their journey, this is a good time to recap some of Listen Like a Lawyer’s posts especially for law students. These are in order below from before law school to 1L and beyond. You can also see posts in reverse chronological order by searching the blog category “law school.”

Please share ideas for additional posts related to listening in law school. And good luck to law students (and law professors) starting a new school year now.

Law-school prep for listening skills

Listening 101 for law students 

The note-taking method that worked for me (link to guest post on The Girls’ Guide to Law School)

An app for legal reading and legal writing

Listening checkup for 1Ls (halfway through first semester)

What are the core professional qualities of lawyers? 

Guest post on externships

Oral argument

“Listening” to the legal job market 

Interview skills and listening

Callback interviewing

Observing the courtroom

Last but not least: Graduation reflection

And one more:  What it sounded like at the bar exam

Emotional intelligenceLaw schoolLegal communicationLegal educationPeople skills

Law-school prep for listening skills?

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

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

Courtesy Flickr/Steven Depolo/CC by 2.0

Courtesy Flickr/Steven Depolo/CC by SA 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

  • Acclimate to the pace of a law school class.

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

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

  • Start to develop a note-taking method.

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

  • Integrate reading and listening on a particular case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else? Listening to people.

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

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

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

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Defining success for new lawyers

The state bar where I am licensed just blast e-mailed a survey for the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers project of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. According to the survey e-mail, this project has three goals:

  • finding out “what law graduates need to launch successful careers in the legal profession”
  • creating “models of legal education to better fulfill those needs”
  • identifying “tools legal employers can use to make better hiring decisions”

The point of the survey is to clarify what “skills, characteristics, and competencies” are necessary for new lawyers in their first year of practice. The survey addresses a myriad of potential competencies from legal research to finance and accounting to personal resilience. Survey participants are asked to rank each item on a four-part scale from immediately necessary for new lawyers to not relevant (as in not relevant ever, in the survey participant’s area of practice).

The list of potential competencies is fascinating; just taking the survey should be a thought-provoking experience. Legal employers who have set objectives for new attorneys’ professional development — or who want to set such objectives— should be following this survey very closely. Lawyers who want to reflect on their own individual strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities should find it informative as well.

The survey questions were arranged by category, and several questions hit on listening either directly or indirectly. In the communications category, the survey asked about the skill of listening “attentively and respectfully.” In the category for emotional intelligence, the survey asked about reading and understanding others’ subtle cues as well as exhibiting tact and diplomacy.

If you have the opportunity to fill out this important survey, I urge you to do so. Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is making a major constructive effort to address the challenges “we” — defined broadly by me to include law students, law schools, lawyers, legal employers, and the clients eventually served by all of the above — together are facing.

Here is more information about the Foundations for Practice initiative. 

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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.

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Listening 101 for law students

New law students file into their first law school class, take a seat, and mentally prepare themselves. The reading has been long and difficult. Now it’s time for class, where everyone can sit back and soak in the professor’s brilliance while all the confusion is clarified.

Uh, no.

The first reading assignments in law school are certainly difficult. The first listening experiences — i.e. what happens during the first few classes — are often at least as hard.

Courtesy Flickr/Stuart Six

Courtesy Flickr/Stuart Six

The actual, real solution to this problem is not what students want to hear: Over time, you will become a better listener. The jargon from learning theory is that you need to build cognitive schemas (i.e. mental frameworks) for understanding the details of law school. (An earlier post touches on this point.)

The good news is that even if your cognitive schemas are as unfinished as the Empire’s Second Death Star, there are steps that can help with more effective listening.

1. Prime yourself to hear the key concepts.

Try to get a sense of the basic concepts and vocabulary of the day, before class. Using the resources that work best for you, make a note of the key concepts you expect to hear the professor talk about. By anticipating the key vocabulary of the day, you will be able to listen better when the professor talks about it. Essentially, you are “priming” yourself to listen to what is important and to learn.

Obviously, the assigned reading is the most important source to consult. But keep in mind that the reading will often be extremely detailed or may illustrate the opposite of what the professor ends up emphasizing. Thus you may want to consult a study guide alongside the reading. The casebook’s table of contents is also an invaluable guide to key words and the course’s overall structure.

(Priming works in other ways you may want to think about as well. If your classmate always complains “Professor X really hides the ball,” then that comment may prime your brain to think class will be confusing. Or it may help you calm down and listen by accepting you’re not the only one who feels confused.)

2. Think about how you are going to take notes.

A lot of people were talking this summer about how taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptops. You should weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself. Criteria you might want to consider include:

  • What helps you focus on class?
  • What helps you recognize and write down important terms and concepts?
  • How do you show relationships among ideas?
  • What helps you differentiate what the professor says as a definitive statement versus a proposition to examine and perhaps destroy?
  • How will you record the main point of Socratic dialogue between the professor and the student?
  • What worked best for you in previous situations where you needed a mix of detailed and highly conceptual notes?
  • (This one is speculative for 1Ls who have never taken an exam, but still important to think about.) What will help you later when you need to review and consolidate the ideas of the class in studying for the final exam?

The notes themselves ultimately are the key evidence of that student’s listening, according to Moji Olaniyan, the Assistant Dean for the Academic Enhancement Program at the University of Wisconsin. Dean Olaniyan said that when she works with a law student on listening issues, the notes are the place she starts.

It bears noting here, law students should take advantage of offerings from academic support and enhancement programs. And seek personalized advice and help from academic support experts sooner rather than later if you have a concern about reading, listening, or other academic functions.

3. Consider a time-tested note-taking technique.

You don’t have to go to Cornell to use “the Cornell method” for taking notes. Lawyerist, a legal blog, recommended this method for lawyers. 

It has a lot to recommend it for law students as well:

  • It encourages organizing your notes by broad topics and important questions.
  • It creates a place for recording details.
  • It requires a summary for consolidating your knowledge after a listening event.

Whatever note-taking platform and technique you use, these three goals — (1) broad topics; (2) details; (3) summary — are an excellent way to think about how to take notes  in a law-school classroom.

Once you get comfortable with basic note-taking in the law school classroom, consider supplementing with more nuanced approaches. One example is what I call the #ProfessorSays method, which means marking particular points the professor went out of the way to emphasize by labeling them “Professor Says: . . . ” or something similar. Then you can go back to the notes and refresh your memory on what the professor really focused on.

4. Consolidate your knowledge.

After class, take a few minutes to reflect on “what just happened?”  Write down the main points you heard. Write down questions and words to look up. Can you think of hypothetical fact patterns that relate to what was just discussed? Return to the reading and highlight any key passages discussed, if it wasn’t already highlighted.  A more organized approach is the “minute paper” method.

Keep in mind also that writing more notes and summaries after class could be a form of busy work you assign to yourself. The entire purpose of this step is to help your brain learn. If you feel like you’re writing and writing but not sure what exactly what all that writing is doing, try something different. Perhaps explain to a study partner — out loud, and without looking at your notes — “what just happened.” (Listen to yourself: can you actually explain it, or at least explain what it is you need to explain?)

However you do it, try after each class to consolidate what you just learned. Even knowing what you are still confused about is a valuable form of knowledge.

5. Compare notes.

Many students find study groups invaluable; others, not so much. They have benefits but aren’t a panacea, as this pragmatic post from Lee Burgess at Law School Toolbox points out. If you are a more social learner, consider literally comparing notes with a classmate. Ultimately, your listening, reflected in your knowledge and your note-taking, should help you learn and prepare for exams. But looking at how someone else does it may help you to adjust your own method to what best suits your needs.

6. Don’t forget other kinds of listening.

Sitting in a law school classroom, taking in the professor’s brilliance and making your own brilliant inner model of the law is, at its best, really great.

But that’s not what lawyers do every day. They work in small groups or one-on-one with people. They interview clients and negotiate with other parties and depose hostile witnesses. They listen to emotional situations and get lied to and hear their own inner voices reacting to whatever they are hearing from the people around them.

As a brand-new law student, you may or may not have the opportunity to model this kind of listening. If you do, count yourself lucky. If you do not, keep in mind that even the most powerful, effective, excellent listening in the 1L classroom is not in itself sufficient to make a great lawyer. Highly analytical listening is just one skill that lawyers need. Many incoming law students will find this thought consoling.

Thanks to Professor Anne Ralph of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law for prompting this post. 

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“Listening” to the legal job market

“Listening” on social media is not really listening (which requires spoken or nonverbal input) — but it’s an essential skill for lawyers and law students nonetheless.

Practicing lawyers can use social media to understand more about their clients and competition, as legal marketing and social media expert Nancy Myrland discusses here. Listening to social media is valuable to legal scholars as well; Professor Randy Picker of the University of Chicago uses Twitter in part as a “listening medium” and “curated news feed” on topics of interest. Along with several practicing lawyers, Picker describes his experiences with social media in this informative panel discussion on “Social Media and Your Law Practice,” sponsored by the ABA Antitrust Division.

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Courtesy Flickr/bspusf

And law students seeking jobs can listen on social media for a variety of reasons:

  • to better understand a practice area
  • to prepare for interviews by learning about potential employers
  • to explore opportunities for contributing to a potential employer’s social-media presence

Listening to the hot topics and background language in a practice area

Listening to social media can build your knowledge base about the field you’re interested in. For anyone — job seeker or not — social media is a fantastic resource for identifying emerging and recurring legal issues. Emory Law School 3L Anna Saraie uses law firm blogs to learn more about the area she hopes to practice in, labor and employment: “I have bookmarked several blogs run by firms that specialize in labor and employment. The information on these blogs came in handy especially during my interviews because it allowed me to engage in interesting conversations about current issues in the field.”

Social media provides a window not just into “hot topics,” but on a subtler level, into the way experts think and talk in a particular field. The kind of vocabulary and conversational patterns you use in a law school classroom are sometimes not the same as the vocabulary and conversational patterns in a lawyer’s day-to-day life. While social media is not a replacement for real conversation (at least we hope not), it can provide helpful background in hot topics, baseline knowledge, and the specialized vocabulary in a field of law.

Preparing for interviews and networking

Social media can also educate about individual firms. A law student interested in a real-estate firm, for example, could learn more about whether the firm generally represents developers or lenders. A student interested in patent law could understand whether the firm’s practice leans toward a scientific or engineering specialty.

Recent Virginia Law graduate Michelle Carmon used social media extensively in her job search, including studying law offices’ blog comments and retweets. Carmon also used LinkedIn to search for personal connections: “When an interviewer has a public LinkedIn profile, it can provide valuable information that you can use to help establish a connection during the interview. It’s helpful to know in advance if you and an interviewer went to the same college or share an interest in a particular practice area.”

Some of this advice may sound obvious, but it also addresses perennial complaints by employers about receiving overly general and uninformed cover letters, or networking requests indicating a lack of preparation.

Listen for what they’re not saying

If you are trying to listen to what a firm is saying on social media but hearing only crickets, you may have an opportunity right there: If you are interested in working for a firm or lawyer who has no social media presence, your own social media skills could be an asset to that employer.

Legal job applicants with a careful, skillful social media presence may distinguish themselves in the job hunt, as Happy Go Legal points out. New lawyers can contribute content as well as broader policies for maintaining an ethical, effective social media presence. “Lawyers unfamiliar with the tools should enlist new associates fresh out of law school to provide practical tutorials—they’ve always swum in this sea, and naturally have a different mindset,” writes Jared Correia in the ABA’s Law Practice magazine.

Carefully craft your own social media presence

Whether you hope to help a lawyer with maintaining social media or simply want a job practicing law, it is important to have an effective social media presence in your own right. This means actually having a “presence.” At this point, we (the legal industry) should be past the era of trying to shut down all signs of social media life. For example with so many lawyers and law firms on LinkedIn, signing up is a “no brainer.” (This quote is from Kevin O’Keefe, one of the web’s biggest proponents of — well, just read his blog title: Real Lawyers Have Blogs.)

Using social media is valuable, but should be just one part of a mix of job-seeking efforts. Effectively listening to social media could lead to opportunities in real life — where a different kind of effective listening can make all the difference.