Listening, legal writing, and legal reading: there’s an app for that

One theme of this blog tilts toward the Luddite: let’s put down our phones, look into one another’s eyes, and really listen, and listen some more. But another theme is to stop worrying and learn to love the technology/internet/digital life etc. Want to be a great listener and a great lawyer? There’s an app for that.

Along those lines, there really is an app that can help listening play a valuable role in the writing and revision process (legal writing or any other kind of writing). Voice Dream Reader is an iPhone/iPad text-to-speech app ($9.99).

IMG_0202Voice Dream Reader can read word-processing documents, PDFs, webpages, certain kinds of digital books, and other types of documents. It integrates seamlessly with many other apps (I used it with Dropbox). Here’s a simple screen shot of some clipped text; visit the App Store to see more examples of what it can do: The default voice that comes with Voice Dream Reader is a little bit computer-ish. Buying a premium voice for $5 or $10 may make this work better for you. I tested out some voices and found that “Salli” was the most listenable for me personally.

Interacting with the app suggested several possibilities for using text-to-speech in legal writing, mainly engaging with your own written work for revising, editing, and proofreading. Text-to-speech could also be valuable for listening to particularly important texts (such as critical research sources). I used Voice Dream Reader to listen to various passages of legal writing and an article about listening and reading. Here are some thoughts on how this app (or other text-to-speech apps) could help with editing and with reading.

Listen to your own writing for flow and proofreading

Most obviously, you could use something like Voice Dream Reader to listen to your own writing. Open a document in Voice Dream Reader and listen to it. They say (and by “they say,” I mean everybody says) editing is about “getting distance from your work.” Listening to your own writing as read by a robot voice is one way to get some distance.

One feature of Voice Dream Reader that fascinated me was its ability to highlight each line and each word as it reads. Speech is slower than thought, and that’s one reason listening is such a challenge. By highlighting the line in yellow and the word inside a red box as it reads, Voice Dream Reader’s multiple inputs help to close that “thought-speech differential” and focus attention on the text. If the sentences are hard to listen to because they are convoluted, too long, or constructed in a confusing way, they probably aren’t readable either. Readability and listenability are closely related, although formulas that quantify readability and listenability may not be identical.* Whether listenability is precisely the same thing as readability need not be resolved by a writer with a pragmatic interest in editing.

To focus on the flow of ideas and connections of sentences, you could turn off the highlighting feature so you don’t see each word highlighted. Listen to the draft in a sort of auditory, storytelling mode. Stop the process when you feel a gap in the story; work on the problem, re-load the new text into Voice Dream (which doesn’t take long) and then resume the listening.

For proofreading, it might be desirable to use the app’s most robotic, computer-sounding voice. The goal is to use technology to get that distance from the draft; a robotic voice can help override the brilliant, friendly internal voice you may hear when editing your own work. (This is the voice that conveniently “fixes” errors as you go, thus compromising the editing process.) Reduce the rate of speech so . . . that . . . the . . . words . . . unroll . . . slowly. Turn on the line and word highlighting so that each word gets its own spotlight as you go.

Listening to a draft probably isn’t great for very large-scale revision questions. And it seems stronger for editing what is on the page rather than what isn’t. Still, it could have collateral benefits in these areas as well, prompting questions about organization and missing content. Listening to a draft is an investment of time (22:07 for a six-page double-spaced memo), but one that could be both interesting and beneficial.

Listen to the important legal authorities

Listening to a legal authority is another investment of time: 7:03 for the text of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; 36:14 just for the majority opinion in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980). But if a legal source is very, very important, it could be well worth the time to listen to the entire thing. You would know the document more thoroughly than if you simply read it silently and highlighted it. You could stop the reading and take notes. You could really hear language that was important or vivid and would therefore make a great quote in a piece of writing about that source.

This may be wishful thinking, but perhaps listening to a legal source could help with that elusive goal of “hearing what they’re not saying.” Expert legal readers can do this; law students learning to read cases are advised to notice what the court did not say or hold. (Linda Edwards’ Legal Writing: Process, Analysis, and Organization is one such text with this advice.)

By listening to a text, which is slower than reading, you have more time to run alternate scenarios of how the text might have been worded. Apart from using any app, reading the authority out loud in your own voice could be beneficial in related ways (maybe even more beneficial). Yet it also might be difficult to persevere through an entire legal document.

Voice Dream Reader could help with the necessary perseverance. It shows you the total reading time and you can see a circle progress through a timeline, orienting you to how much longer there is to go. This timeline could be another useful piece of information for revision purposes as well: if the text seems to drag and make unnecessary points, perhaps it could and should be shortened.

Caveats and conclusion

As mentioned above, here are the features I found most useful in Voice Dream Reader:

  •  the ability to highlight text, or turn off highlighting
  • control over the rate of speech
  • premium voices
  • integration with Dropbox

A few critiques and caveats: Trying to move back and forth in a document was awkward and difficult for me. I did figure out how to bookmark certain moments and navigate among them, which was helpful. One of the sources I read was a PDF with footnotes. Voice Dream Reader did not know how to handle footnotes other than to plow through them in linear fashion. When it came to the bottom of the main text on a page, it then went immediately into the footnotes below.

This linear reading of text and footnotes was both awkward and helpful in a strange way. It was awkward because citations aren’t sentences and they sound just plain ugly. But listening to the footnotes was actually kind of helpful as well because it gave me a moment to listen less attentively and jot some notes about the main text. I didn’t totally tune out from the footnotes; the reading was slow enough that I could make notes on interesting sources to investigate later.

Another caveat: I am positive there are many other apps and web apps and software programs with similar functionality. I did not do a comprehensive search into alternative text-to-speech platforms. (There is a free version of Voice Dream Reader called Voice Dream Reader Lite. Apparently it reads in 300-word segments, after which you have to press “play” again to continue. I did not try out the lite version.) I did find this helpful in-depth review of Voice Dream Reader.

Using Voice Dream Reader revealed some interesting possibilities for bringing speech and listening into the analysis and writing process. If you have used a text-to-speech app such as Voice Dream Reader for your own listening, reading, and writing — especially in a law-related context — please share thoughts in the comments.

*Sidebar if you’re interested: Patrick Ellis — a lawyer and scholar with some serious coding skills — measured the “simplicity” of an oral argument by Supreme Court advocate and former Solicitor General Paul Clement by converting the recording to text and quantifying its readability. But some listening scholarship suggests that listenability and readability are not as closely related as one might think because nonverbal cues, attitudes, and presentation issues affect listenability in a way that readability formulas don’t take into account. See Glenn, Emmert, and Emmert, A Scale for Measuring Listenability: The Factors that Determine Listening Ease and Difficulty, 9 Int’l J. Listening 44 (1995) (“too many variables intervene that prevent unqualified use of reading measurements to test and evaluate the listenability of oral texts”).

Listenability and readability

The essential difficulty with writing is “the curse of knowledge,” as Lisa Cron describes in her excellent book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. The writer is cursed with the knowledge of what he or she is trying to say — knowledge that the reader by definition does not share. This curse manifests in at least two ways:

On the one hand, the writer is so familiar with his subject that he glosses over things the reader is utterly clueless about. On the other, it’s way too easy for the writer to get caught up in the minutiae of how things “really work” and lose sight of the story itself.

Cron then takes a bit of a cheap shot, although maybe it’s deserved:

This is something that, for some reason, lawyers seem particularly prone to.

(Digression: Forgive this one moment. Cron’s book is great, and particularly great for any law student or lawyer interested in storytelling.)

Composition scholars and legal writing scholars have been talking about this “curse of knowledge” in different words for a long time. In this post I’m drawing in particular on an article by Irene Lurkis Clark, Listening and Writing, 3 J. Basic Writing 81 (1981), available at Professor Lurkis Clark did some interesting work with listening and writing that helps explain why and how listening can help build better writing.

A different way to describe the writer’s curse of knowledge is the problem of “writer-based prose,” a term coined by famous communications scholar Linda Flowers. Writer-based prose is bad because it assumes the reader already knows what the writer is trying to say. This kind of prose is an “‘unretouched and under processed version’ of the writer’s own thought.” Students must learn to produce “reader-based prose,” which entails a “deliberate attempt” to reach the reader using “shared language and context.”

Beginning legal writers face the double challenge of learning to use legal concepts and language with precision *and* writing about those concepts for a reader. The reader for our purposes is not just any reader, but a legal reader. Extensive legal writing scholarship explores these challenges and how to address them. A few key methods include reading excellent writingfollowing structured self-editing processes, reflecting on the writing process and written product, and  obtaining/implementing meaningful feedback from peers, professors, supervising lawyers, and others.

Effective listening can help with effective writing too.

This is in part because language skills are integrated. Some scholars claim they are completely integrated (good reader = good writer = good listener = good speaker). Others take a more nuanced position, seeking to explore and define the boundaries between listening, reading, speaking, and writing. The extent of integration need not be resolved for listening to help a lawyer or law student wanting to write more effectively.

For example, reading your work out loud is something we are all told to do. Professor Lurkis Clark explored the composition theory behind this recommendation — namely that “listenability” and “readability” are closely related. Early work in listenability actually used readability scores to measure listenability, a method that has been questioned and refined since then.

Based on the connections between listenability and readability, Professor Lurkis Clark proposed that students listen to each other’s writing and share structured feedback. The idea is that beginning (non-legal) writers can build their reading comprehension skills and gain a stronger sense of audience. If students’ listening is stronger than their reading (which can be the case with unskilled writers), then critiques based on listening may be more advanced than those based on reading.

Lurkis Clark didn’t claim peer review by listening was a novel idea, but she sought to explore why it works and what it’s best suited to do. In this work and a subsequent experimental study of how evaluators scored text depending on whether they listened to it or read it, Professor Lurkis Clark concluded — not surprisingly — that listening is best for critiquing structure, content and audience appropriateness. She found a high correlation between scores assigned to a text by listeners and those assigned by readers of that same text. Taken in sum, her work validates the role of listening in what is, ideally, a virtuous spiral of developing communication skills:

One’s ability to listen . . . can enhance one’s ability to read, which, in turn, can enhance one’s ability to revise, which, finally, has significant implications for the production of coherent discourse.


The sounds of graduation

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of celebrating graduation with another class of law students. Writing Listen Like a Lawyer has me thinking a lot about how lawyers and law students interact with conversation, voice, and sound. Thus I approached this year’s graduation with a particular focus on sound.

Flickr/Yovany Alas
Flickr/Yovany Alas

Graduation ceremonies are memorable for so many reasons. The sun rises, and faculty and students don their velvet-corded regalia. There is something about wearing that beret with the yellow tassel. Maybe the hat changes the way sound conducts into the ears? I can certainly hear the tassel brushing against the velvet whenever my head moves. Likewise the dark heavy fabric of the gown whispers with every movement.

And then there is the ceremony itself. At the law school where I teach, graduation always starts with a rousing prelude of bagpipes. If the true sign of intelligence is, as Fitzgerald said, the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind and retain the ability to function, then bagpipes are a musical intelligence test: screeching yet sonorous, grating yet glorious. When the pipers stop, their last hiss of muscular breath dies away. The silence that follows is sanctified.

And then, the speeches. Fed through a huge sound system, the voices echo as statements from the podium ring out through amplifiers. Experienced speakers project short sentences deliberately and then pause, letting those sentences expand and settle on the ears of hundreds or thousands in the audience. Inexperienced speakers — for example, students — may speak too quickly and audibly shuffle their notes at the podium. Yet their flushed faces and nervous laughter give us all a moment to appreciate youth and their accomplishment. The faculty and family laugh at their jokes and silently send well wishes toward them and all the graduates seated in rows.

And then there is the reading of the names. It is . . . interminable. Looking from page to page in the program to search where we are in the sequence, audience members including faculty sit, wriggle, writhe, fidget, and wait. One can see students, family, and faculty alike cycle between attentive body language, distracted fidgeting, and a kind of numb surrender. As the reading of the names goes on. Each name is so special to the person hearing it. And to their families and friends, of course. Of course. I absolutely love hearing my former students’ names. But together in minute upon minute upon minute, the names start to run together.

But then there are . . . the cowbells! And the ululations! And the kazoos and vuvuzelas! The sounds of celebration lend a festive air and give everyone a focus and even a chuckle among the onslaught of name after name after name. This year, the loving outburst from the audience: “That’s my sister!!!”

My student memories of graduation are more visual than auditory. I can remember how I checked my mortarboard in the mirror because it kept tipping, how the stages looked with speakers and administrators arrayed in their finery, and how the sun seemed to shine just a little bit brighter and the clouds to look a bit puffier than on another typical beautiful day. And to a degree, I can remember the essence of what they said. (Okay maybe not this speech, which somehow was bland enough to warrant coverage years later in the Onion.)

Although the sounds blur and are mostly forgotten, the sounds of the day contribute to a vivid sensory experience that makes a unique memory. And there is one word, repeated over and over in so many voices, in small groups and in large circles, in a parent or mentor’s murmur into the ear of a velvet-capped graduate: “Congratulations.”


Thanks to Jenn Mathews for reviewing an earlier version of this essay.

Listening the first time

Do you remember the first oral argument you ever saw? The first real trial? First mediation? First negotiation? First plea deal? First closing?

These firsts are hard to forget. They can be pure sensory overloads: the defendant comes in wearing orange, the state puts on its case and the defense tries to poke holes and humanize the defendant, the jury decides, the judge speaks, and then the bailiffs take the defendant away, or not. That’s how I felt years ago as a young journalist on the courthouse beat, watching the power of the state.

Courtesy Flickr/Jeffrey Beale
Courtesy Flickr/Jeffrey Beale

But there is another approach–preparing to listen, to see, to notice. Building a tentative framework for comprehending the event. What should an observer expect to see? To hear? What does a mentor advise an observer to pay special attention to? If an observer has never seen a trial before, how should that observer filter and evaluate the first one?

Just as one example, here is a set of “listening guidelines” for observing one’s first oral argument. Where I teach legal writing, we share these guidelines with students before they watch an oral-argument demonstration. This is not a formal assessment rubric; it’s more an intuitive list of how and what to notice. And it’s not really just a “listening” framework; it’s a learning framework for an experience that demands and rewards effective listening.

  • How did counsel begin the argument?
  • Did counsel clearly state what they wanted the court to do?
  • Did counsel make the facts of the case clear?
  • Was counsel concise in describing the facts?
  • Did counsel set out a roadmap of the argument to follow?
  • What kinds of arguments did counsel focus on (legal, factual, policy, emotional, other)?
  • How did counsel use authority to support the argument?
  • Did the argument begin with strong, favorable points?
  • How did counsel handle counter-arguments?
  • What role did the record play in the argument?
  • What kind of questions did the court ask (e.g. clarifying, hostile, or friendly questions; questions about the record or about the legal support for the argument)?
  • How effectively did counsel answer those questions? What made the answers effective or ineffective?
  • How did counsel conclude the argument?
  • Did counsel do anything distracting to you?
  • What demeanor did counsel adopt (e.g. combative, conciliatory, matter-of-fact, impassioned, etc.)?

Feedback is welcome, both on the specific guidelines and the general concept. How have you prepared yourself, if at all, before seeing a type of lawyering event for the first time? How do you advise others to prepare themselves?

Loaded questions in the law school classroom

Prawfsblawg has a thoughtful post by Mehrsa Baradaran about “Teaching While Woman.” Professor Baradaran thoughtfully and honestly describes her struggles and ultimate success learning classroom management as a new law professor. She shares advice she received from other young women professors including women of color dealing with what seem like disproportionately frequent challenges to their classroom authority.

The post is excellent; I highly recommend it to anyone considering law teaching in any form, from tenure-track to adjuncting or even guest-teaching one class.

Professor Baradaran’s experience and some of the comments on her post (by law students) prove that privilege and prejudice are still very much at work in the dynamics of the law school classroom. This is how she describes her experience:

Within the first two weeks of each class, without exception so far, there will be one or two challengers to your authority. The challengers will say something like this (usually with an aggressive tone and stance): “You say ____, but doesn’t the case actually say ____?” “I don’t agree with that, isn’t ____a better explanation?” The class will go silent as they recognize this as a small insurgency. You must shut this down. You must do it quickly, painfully, and effectively. But here’s the catch: you have to do it with a smile on your face. You cannot appear threatened or defensive. You need not spare the feelings of the aggressor, but need to convince the class that you are the one who knocks.

The professor’s and students’ identities form the backdrop of the interaction. Wrapped up as well is the context of the law and legal culture, with the professor serving as gatekeeper and guide to law students. Some of these students would rank highly on an arrogance scale, and others have so much to offer but so little confidence.

Within this context, the professor listens to the question, seeks to manage nonverbal signals in handling the question, and makes a decision how to proceed. It’s not easy. I am grateful to Professor Baradaran for sharing her experience.

Thanks to Professor Dorothy Brown of Emory Law School for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

Thanks also to Professor Michael Higdon of the University of Tennessee College of Law for sharing Professor Baradaran’s post among legal writing professors.

Listening to your 1L voice

Listen Like a Lawyer has been on hiatus during a busy time for first-year legal writing students and professors. As the students wrote and finalized their first appellate briefs, I located my own old 1L appellate brief. Even without the 1996 date, the blue paper and Courier font are like a voice from the past.


Maybe this “voice” should really be “voices”: I can hear the words of my professor in sentences that I never would have written on my own. For example: “The district court’s ruling can be comfortably affirmed under the first or third parts of the test.” What 1L comes up with the words “comfortably affirmed”? Also any use of the Code of Federal Regulations was purely a product of what she told the class to do. I had no idea what I was doing.

And that leads to another voice: the voice of doubt. When in doubt, many people return to their comfort zone. For me, the comfort zone was description–basically, just summarizing the facts and holdings of cases. Several sequences of paragraphs consist of nothing more than “In one case, xyz happened. . . . In another case, abc happened . . . .” This brief was guilty of the incredibly common 1L mistake of the “book report,” as described by Kristen Tiscione in her article on classical rhetoric, Paradigm Lost: Recapturing Classical Rhetoric to Validate Legal Reasoning. Yes, those paragraphs should have had stronger topic sentences developing an actual legal standard. In “listening” to it now, I can hear the voice of a 1L who was just not sure what to say.

Although there is much to criticize and pity in the brief, there are also moments of confidence. Good writing often corresponds with appealing rhythm and pace–features that one can hear when reading sentences out loud. In describing the client, who had been fired due to tobacco addiction and possibly his age as well, the brief juxtaposed his seniority against what the CEO wanted: “[The plaintiff’s] age and his advanced career actually hinder him; companies want ‘new blood that will stay forever.’ (R. 18).” The brief even reached for a figure of speech: “HIs tobacco addiction resulted in the Defendant’s firing him and the doors of the biotechnology market simultaneously shutting in his face throughout New England.” There is no doubt I stated these words — verbatim — at my 1L oral argument.

Legal writing scholars debate the existence of “voice” in legal writing. As Chris Rideout has written, legal writing has a “professional voice” but not so much a “personal voice.”  Legal writing professors walk the fine line of trying to teach the professional voice while not crushing the personal.

Perhaps the voice of legal writing occupies a middle ground, as Rideout suggests: the voice comes from a “discoursal self” that performs a discourse tradition in its own way in that context, at that moment. The appellate brief, for example, embodies a certain tradition, yet the brief-writer has the opportunity to contribute to and even change the tradition in performing it.

And my old brief was certainly a performance. The words reflect the very personal effort of a fledging grownup, trying on and testing out the professional voice of a lawyer. My actual voice as a 1L probably sounded a lot like it does now, because the human voice remains relatively stable from age 20 to 60. But my “voice” as a writer and a lawyer has developed so much since that 1L brief, with one of the most obvious improvements being stronger topic sentences. They could hardly have been worse.

And now from the past to the future. Law students: Without falling victim to hoarding, maybe you should print out a hard copy of your 1L brief. Who knows whether your memory sticks and cloud servers will still be easily accessible 20 years from now? And consider saving your actual voice as well. What about doing a video time capsule to yourself? Tell your future self what you’re doing. Talk about the law generally, or describe your most recent writing project or your favorite class. Show the way you think. Use an app such as SpeakingPhoto to narrate what you were thinking when a particularly photo (yes, even a selfie!) was taken. Your future self will likely appreciate the chance to hear your voice when you were just a “baby lawyer.”

And experienced lawyers: maybe find a way to “listen” to the young lawyer and law student you used to be. Dig up some old work or find an old tape from a trial-advocacy class. Naive? Cynical? Confident? Scared? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Sometimes it’s enlightening to listen to your own voice.

The author dedicates this post to Stephanie Feldman-Aleong, a former colleague at Emory Law School and professor at Nova Southeastern, who passed away in 2008. Stephanie inspired me in many ways such as by sharing her own 1L work with students.

Thanks to Beth Wilensky of the University of Michigan Law School for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

Listening in law school: second-semester update

First-semester 1Ls face a daunting challenge: they are learning the law as taught in the language of the law—which they don’t know yet. This challenge is to some extent uncomfortable and unavoidable, but there are steps 1Ls can take and resources they can consult to ease the transition. As one of many examples, here is a helpful chapter from UMKC Professor Barbara Glesner-Fines’s law-school success book, with a section on active listening in the classroom. Listen Like a Lawyer previously outlined the idea of a first-semester listening check-up.

Second semester is different. Well, actually one thing is the same: it’s still a rather poor choice to surf the internet during class. A fundamental step in effective listening for law school novices as well as experts is to pay attention, as law school success coach Lee Burgess has discussed.

But the classroom experience really is different for second-semester 1Ls. Becoming more comfortable with legal language means that a law student should have a larger capacity to learn legal concepts and, ideally, should be increasingly efficient at doing so. One way to help assess your effectiveness at learning is to do another mid-semester listening check-up.

A second-semester 1L doing a listening self-assessment is now much better able to evaluate difficult but important questions such as the following:

  • When should my listening be informational – almost like a reporter taking notes?
  • When should my listening focus on the concepts?
  • What verbal and nonverbal cues is the professor offering that help signal his or her attitude toward the content?
  • When are these nonverbal cues complex, such as when a professor role-plays disdain for a particular holding and then switches to praising its effectiveness?
  • What can I do after class to better process and remember the information I just heard?
  • During class discussion, how do I change my listening when the professor asks questions and students respond?
  • When on call, what can I do to reduce stress and focus on listening to the question and connecting it to my class preparation?
  • What point do I think the professor is trying to make in spending time on a statute, case, or other legal source or idea?
  • Does the professor explicitly identify any particularly complex or important issues, or trending questions in the field?
  • What does the professor leave unsaid, such as by exploring several steps to a line of reasoning but then stopping to let the students draw their own conclusions?
  • What seems to be undisputed doctrine and what is more a matter of interpretation and disagreement?

Study groups may be a more valuable resource during second semester because the group members have a better collective idea of what they are doing. Study-group members might try a one-class listening experiment in which one member would try to record everything said in class, another member would paraphrase, and a third would record just the gist of important concepts. Comparing these notes could be quite informative about the structure of the big ideas and the details used to support those ideas.

Talking with a professor, if the professor is willing to discuss listening as a topic, could also be helpful. Some professors may engage with listening method itself, as in “I don’t think you should try to write down every word but rather should listen for understanding and write down key concepts and key moments during the lecture and discussion.”

Other professors may respond better to discussion of specific doctrines. A student could review her class notes and engage with the professor on whether the student’s takeaway is consistent with the professor’s main points about a specific substantive area of law. After meeting with a professor, the student can then reflect on what that discussion revealed about his listening.

As a final note, law students should be working with academic support deans, teaching assistants, and other academic resources. Listening effectively is a key part of learning effectively.

Listen to learn: Four ways listening can help you get the most out of your externship

Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to welcome this guest post by Kendall L. Kerew, Co-Director of Georgia State University College of Law’s Externship Program.


An externship (a field placement for academic credit) can be a great opportunity for law students to learn outside of the classroom alongside practicing lawyers and judges. If you are a law student beginning an externship this semester, you might want to consider the following ways listening skills can help you gain the most from your experience. If you don’t have an externship this semester, think about how you might be able to incorporate listening skills into your approach to a current or future internship or summer job.

1. Listen to maximize opportunities.

When you begin your externship, you may have a sense of what you want to learn from the experience. While it is important to clarify your own learning goals and expectations, it will add to your experience if you ask your supervising attorney or judge about his or her goals and expectations. What does he or she want to teach you? What experiences does he or she think you shouldn’t miss? What kind of assignments should you expect? What observation opportunities will you have? If you listen carefully to how your supervisor answers these questions, you will have a good idea of whether your goals are realistic and achievable.

2. Listen to increase understanding.

All externs have the shared goal of delivering a quality, useful work product. To get one step closer to achieving this goal, be sure you know what your supervisor wants. Listen to all parts of the assignment to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do and why you are being asked to do it. Ask clarifying questions to determine the scope and application of the assignment. Listen to the answers and ask follow-up questions.

Listening to your supervisor is just as important after you finish the assignment. Be sure to actively seek your supervisor’s assessment. Hear the feedback. Be open-minded and receptive to constructive criticism. You can’t improve without knowing where you went wrong or what you could have done better.

3. Listen to what others have to say.

You will interact with many non-lawyers during your externship. Be sure to listen to what they have to say. The administrative assistants, court personnel, and other interns/externs who support your supervising lawyer or judge can provide invaluable information about office procedures, preferences, and expectations. Listening to non-lawyers can provide you with a different and important perspective about the practice of law.

4. Listen to yourself.

Throughout your externship experience, you will be expected to actively reflect on what you are learning, not only about the law, but also about yourself and the formation of your professional identity. Set aside a few minutes each day to focus on yourself and engage in self-reflection. Ask yourself questions that will help you to figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be. What did you like or dislike about a particular assignment or area of law? What professional or unprofessional lawyering practices did you encounter and how did they make you feel? What lessons did you learn from observing the lawyers and judges around you? How do you want to practice law? Assess your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, and map out your plan for the future (both immediate and long-term). The work you put into figuring out what kind of lawyer you want to be may prove to be the most important work you do all semester.

Kendall L. Kerew, Co-Director, Georgia State University College of Law Externship Program

The author is grateful to her externship program co-director, Andrea Curcio, for her helpful feedback and unflagging support and to Jennifer Romig for inviting her to write this guest post.

Listening to your own self-talk: a challenge during law school finals

Part of effective listening is dealing with what you hear from your own self-talk. As reported by Susan David and Christina Congleton in their Harvard Business Review article on Emotional Agility, we speak on average 16,000 words per day–out loud. A comment to the article suggests that internal self-talk generates 20,000-40,000 “neurological” words per day.

The idea behind the Emotional Agility article is exactly what I wanted to write about here at Listen Like a Lawyer at this time of year. Law students are headed directly into exams, a petri dish for negative self-talk, as Alison Monahan has written about here at Ms. JD. Recent graduates are about six months out of school and either moving past the honeymoon phase of a new job or still seeking employment. Practicing lawyers face pressures to close out the year in terms of projects, deals, cases, and billable hours. In general the holidays can be a time of stress, and those involved in the legal profession have our own brand of stress around this time. Stress leads to “internal chatter” that may be counterproductive.

Thus these difficult times are exactly when effective listening skills in terms of dealing with your own self-talk is so important. Self-talk is pervasive, but as David and Congleton write, sometimes we become “hooked” on certain “rigid, repetitive” thoughts. To break these patterns and become more emotionally agile, they recommend recognizing, labeling, and accepting these chattering thoughts–followed by intentionally acting not on the chatter but on your own values. I recommend the full article (available free with registration) as well as the comments, which acknowledge related models serving both therapeutic and business/leadership goals.

Particularly for law students headed into study periods and finals, there is no better time than now to work on productive management of self-talk. As one example of a resource, here is Berkeley Law’s online guide addressing law student stress. And one of the sources cited there is Debra Austin’s law review article on “neural self-hacking to optimize law school performance.” I recommend this article, particularly the solutions section at the end. The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are most directly related to the self-talk issue. But other solutions such as exercise and sleep have powerful indirect effects on negative self-talk as well.

Lawyers, law students, and legal professionals: please share your own experiences and advice about effectively dealing with self-talk. Thank you, and happy Thanksgiving to all.

The listening technique that worked for me in law school

Taking good notes is a listening challenge. As a first-year law student, I started out with a “leave no statement behind” mentality, attempting to write everything down. As my legal knowledge evolved, my note-taking technique evolved as well. I began using a label in my notes, “Professor Says.” This label helped me to distinguish general notes from points the professor particularly emphasized. It helped me with my focus during class, and it helped with studying for exams as well. Here, in a guest post at The Girl’s Guide to Law School, I expand on the “Professor Says” note-taking method.

For more information on listening and note-taking (particularly for 1Ls), please see the Listening check-up for first-year law students from Listen Like a Lawyer. And please use the comments to share your own techniques for listening during law school. What worked for you? What did you try and abandon? How did you use law school to work on your listening skills?