Category: Legal education

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Teaching Success > Analyzing Failure

Why blog about listening? It drew me in because it’s different than legal writing—which I honestly love, and love to teach, but sometimes tire of, with its skirmishes in broader linguistic debates about two spaces after a period, commas outside quotation marks, and the indefinite singular pronoun, as well as the temptation to go negative.

Courtesy Flickr/Martin Fisch/CC BY-SA 2.0

Courtesy Flickr/Martin Fisch/CC BY-SA 2.0

Listening is among the softest of the soft skills, so soft it’s hard to perceive and even harder to measure. It’s not talked about as much as writing or speaking—or even the other “receptive” communication channel, reading—but I believe it has a huge impact on every aspect of law students’ and lawyers’ effectiveness, both real and perceived. If a law student gets every relevant fact from an externship client including important gaps in the client’s knowledge and then produces excellent notes for the supervising attorney, but the client does not feel heard, is that a successful interaction? How can law students and lawyers enhance their listening skills?

I hoped to mainly focus the blog on constructive ideas, as opposed to the “what not to do” method so prevalent in some conversations about legal writing. Yet soon as I launched the blog, the most common reaction was to parade out the listening failures:

“Your blog is called Listen Like a Lawyer? Oh, so you mean poorly and with preconceived ideas?”

Thus the temptation. It can be fun to write about bad examples of anything, whether listening or writing or any other skill. I had a little too much fun writing a Halloween post about “scary” listening here. And here’s a more serious post focusing on terrible listening. The attraction—and impact—of talking about failure is based on a larger disturbing reality:

[N]egative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impacts than positive ones.

This is from an article in the Harvard Business Review explaining Roy Baumeister’s paper “Bad Is Stronger than Good.”

Prevention is better than failure

The temptation to talk about any skill in terms of failure came immediately to mind when I read Ken Grady’s latest post at the Seyfarth Shaw Lean Consulting blog SeytLines, “On Teaching Lawyers to Succeed Rather than Fail.” His post focuses on critiquing the case method of law school, in which almost every fact pattern by definition represents a failure of the parties and lawyers to find a mutually beneficial solution and settle the case.

His critique is not unreasonable: why is that a good way to teach lawyers to solve problems? Actually Grady is less interested even in solving problems than in anticipating and preventing them. And he doesn’t think the case method is very good at this at all:

“[T]aken to an extreme and when used as the primary method of teaching students, [the case method] becomes a vicious circle keeping us trapped in a cycle of failure.”

Re-thinking the model to teach law students how to proactively work with clients to prevent legal problems turns out to be very difficult. Prevention is a lot harder to see than failure:

“Much of the best lawyering ever done was not recorded in case books or articles. It went unrecorded because that work prevented failure from happening. The lawyers who provided those services kept their clients out of trouble, kept costs down, and avoided burdens on society.”

Role-playing real situations is one way to get at preventative lawyering, as in the following example from Grady:

“A general counsel is faced with a new business model. She investigates the obvious legal risks of the model and does not find anything at odds with existing law. As far as she can tell the proposed business model is perfectly legal. But still, something does not seem right to her. She pushes further into the model. As she studies it, she realizes how it may conflict with evolving concepts in the law and societal trends. Today the model is perfectly legal, but in three to five years, it most likely will be problematic. Our general counsel could do nothing and leave any problem to the future. She could follow the maxim of make money today and let tomorrow bring whatever it may. Or, she could look for something to mitigate the risk.”

Problem-solving and leadership

Grady’s post “On Teaching Lawyers to Succeed Rather than Fail” reminds me a lot of Emory Law Professor Dorothy Brown’s recent article Law School Without Borders (PDF). In the article, she outlines an alternative approach to teaching law. She gives a case study problem solving and problem prevention for a hypothetical client who happens to be a “nationally known Southern-style celebrity chef” sued for race and sex discrimination. In the article, Brown walks through the possibilities for achieving success through proactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative lawyering. More broadly, she suggests what law schools can and should do to broaden their focus:

“A law school that incorporates more than just teaching students how to think like lawyers, but how to also solve problems and take a leadership role will graduate students better equipped to add value to their firms and clients on the first day. Emotional intelligence should not be underestimated. By emotional intelligence, I mean empathy, exercising good judgment, maturity, wisdom, common sense, and last, but not least, the ability to have difficult conversations successfully.”

Hear, Hear! to the idea of teaching leadership, emotional intelligence, and difficult conversations. The “law school without borders” Professor Brown describes is consistent with Ken Grady’s interest in teaching problem prevention through anticipatory lawyering. Their ideas both fit within and challenge the ongoing conversation about experiential learning in legal education, such as here.

Better listening by analyzing listening successes

This is a huge topic, but what we can do here is to bring the focus back to listening. From time to time, we can turn away from “10 Ways to Be Awful at Listening.” We can instead talk about “10 Ways Great Listening Helped Lawyers Serve Their Clients By Understanding and Avoiding Potential Disputes.” Here are some questions:

  • How have you seen lawyers use listening to successfully prevent and solve problems?
  • What did they do, specifically, that showed their listening?
  • How can proactive, preventative, powerful listening be a tool for lawyering success?
  • What are some ways to teach that kind of listening?
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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Kendall_Kerew

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.

Law schoolLegal education

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?

Law schoolLegal education

Listening check-up for first-semester law students

Every fall, every entering class of 1Ls faces a “paradox of comprehension,” writes Kris Franklin of New York Law School (here).  These brand-new law students have neither a framework for understanding legal concepts nor a solid legal vocabulary. Yet they have to somehow learn the law. As Franklin asks, “How do [they] enter this apparently closed circle?”

Open and Closed by Clearly Ambiguous

Courtesy Flickr/Open and Closed by Clearly Ambiguous

Listening is particularly challenging for listeners with no framework for the concepts or even the particular words used to express those concepts. To quote Terrill Pollman of UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, “It’s like learning to speak Chinese by being dropped from an airplane in the middle of China.”

Now that first-year law students have had about six to eight weeks of this disorienting experience, it’s a good time to reflect on the listening and learning experience so far.  “How can I know whether I am listening effectively?” the mid-fall-semester 1L rightfully asks. Evaluating your own listening is difficult in any context, but here are a few thoughts. Evaluating what works and what doesn’t work can help lead to a more effective rest of the semester.

1. Self-evaluate what you are doing in class.

If you find yourself looking at unrelated Internet sites during slow moments in class, what you are doing is not working.

2. Talk to a friend about what you just got out of class.

Pick one particular class and discuss it in depth with someone. Go over what you heard and took away from what the professor said and what discussion revealed. Revisit what was said, and what you think the professor meant, in as much detail as you can.

3. Visit the professor during office hours.

Explain that you would like to check how well you are doing at listening to class sessions. Offer to restate your understanding of some segment of the class, such as one case discussed during a class session. You may not want to present this discussion as a blanket request to go over an entire class session again. The professor may be more amenable to the conversation if you frame the discussion with a more specific question and show what you are thinking about the material.

4. Look at your notes and maybe a classmate’s too.

After class one day, compare what you just experienced to what you wrote down. Expert note-taking advice often suggests not recording everything the speaker is saying, but rather working to process and prioritize the information as take notes. That is fine if you know what you’re doing. But at the beginning of law school (as well as at the beginning of any new course) you may find it more useful to err on the side of recording more of what’s happening. Consider also comparing notes—literally—with a classmate. What did each of you take away from class? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your note-taking systems?  And what are the differences in what each of you picked up from the experience? Seeing someone else’s approach to the same task can help you customize what works for you.

5. Evaluate how much you are just “letting go.”

Also make sure your notes don’t commit the sin of omission. What if you don’t understand something the professor is saying, or the point of a long Socratic back-and-forth with a classmate on call?  If you take no notes because of the confusion, then that material may be lost forever. Write down some snippets as well as a notation that you are confused and need to study this in more depth.

6. Try a practice exam question or two.

Apart from any formal practice exam your law school may offer or require, you can evaluate your listening by taking a practice exam on your own. If available, one of your professor’s own exams will work best. Practicing the traditional way by answering the question under normal time constraints will certainly help you. You might also want to try a practice question by specifically focusing on your listening. Look at the exam question, take a few moments to think, and write down what major issues it seems to cover. Do not look at your notes yet. Instead, thoroughly scan your memory for what the professor—as well as classmates—said about these issues in class. Try to remember speech snippets and even jokes and nonverbal behavior during the dialog. After priming your brain this way, work on answering the question in writing. You probably would not take an actual exam this way, but it could be helpful for keeping your classroom memories fresh, thinking broadly about themes in the class, and not getting too tied to your notes as having “the” answer.

7. Listen to a podcast recording of class or record a class, if possible.

Recoding and re-listening to every class may not be feasible. But going back over a recorded class session and studying your notes from the first time around may help you to catch nuances of the particular class that you missed. It may also help you catch nuances of what is happening in class more generally: is the professor criticizing the result or reasoning in a case? Is the professor comparing and contrasting two approaches to the same case? What are the hypotheticals that the professor lays out, and are they explored to their fullest or left unresolved for possible future analysis—say, on an exam.

8. Rest your ears and listen to nature.

If you pop in the earbuds right after class, you may be depriving your brain of the chance to process and file what you just heard in class. Yes, music and speech are different and perhaps do not compete in the brain, but still:  Try giving your listening circuits more time to work on what you have learned in class.

You may also benefit from spending time in nature. Spending a bit of time away from a computer—instead seeing, hearing, and even smelling the natural world—can reduce stress and boost creativity.

Many thanks to Professor Terrill Pollman for helpful feedback on this article.