Category: Legal skills

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The quiet law office

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This blog was partly inspired by  a New York Times article, The Flight from Conversation. The author, Sherry Turkle, explores technology’s disruptions at length in the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. In the New York Times article, she describes the “flight from conversation” within a law office:

In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.

I have heard this same quiet in several 21st-century law firms. It seems different than how I remember law practice. In my day of practicing law, which was the late 1990’s, the office was a busy, noisy place. Every few minutes someone went to the file cabinets lining the hallways, opening and shutting the cabinets with a click. Workrooms were a place to assemble major exhibit collections, with open-door meetings where attorneys and paralegals gathered to spread out the papers and make a plan. Phones rang—a lot—and faxes curled off machines. Snippets of NPR could be overheard from open doors, as well as loud conversations on speakerphone. Senior lawyers sometimes phoned junior lawyers but other times just yelled down the hall, “Do you have the pleadings file in the Smith case??”

It’s easy to dismiss these reminiscences as pre-recession, pre-iTunes nostalgia. They are. Lawyers’ working styles have differed since the time of Dickens’ Bleak House and before; and of course technology has helped with certain kinds of communication, productivity, and even focus. Here’s a rousing (non-law) defense of headphones at least for the “boring tasks,” but experts on the legal workplace are less enthusiastic. Focus is important but isn’t everything. Being open to conversations and the opportunities they bring is something too. 

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Welcome

Welcome to Listen Like a Lawyer. This blog will explore the theory and practice of effective listening, and how lawyers, law students, and just about everyone involved in the practice of law can benefit from working on their listening. Effective listening provides a distinct advantage to anyone whose job involves communication—a description that certainly fits lawyers.

The motivation for this project is twofold.

1. Good listening makes good lawyering

First, good listening is a necessary component of good lawyering. Lawyers who are powerful listeners can negotiate more effectively, answer judges’ questions more responsively, communicate more completely with clients, and otherwise enhance their relationships and effectiveness in almost all aspects of their practice.

2. Listening is in jeopardy

Second, I have a sense—and don’t think I’m alone in perceiving—that listening skills are deteriorating among lawyers and the general public. Distractions and the dominance of visual media and written communication are sapping our attention and our strength at gleaning auditory information. The foundation for these beliefs, as well as challenges and counter-arguments, will be topics explored during the life of the blog.

Who this blog is for

The intended audience is anyone interested in effective communication by lawyers. I think this group includes, at a minimum, lawyers, law students, in-house counsel and others who regularly work with lawyers, judges and mediators, law professors (particularly clinicians and those who teach communication- and skills-based courses), and other professionals in the legal industry. I hope to draw on a variety of source from academic to practical to totally outside the box.

This is a conversation about listening and lawyering

The benefit of the blog format is that it permits and encourages a flexible, responsive flow of ideas. Please make constructive comments, and e-mail me at jromig@emory.edu if you want to comment privately or discuss possibilities for guest blogging. Thank you, and enjoy the blog’s journey exploring what it means to listen like a (really good) lawyer.