Category: Professional development

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.

Emotional intelligenceLeadershipPeople skillsProfessional developmentProfessional responsibility

The Good Lawyer

levitlinder

“What does it mean to be a good lawyer?” Thus begins The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law by Douglas O. Linder & Nancy Levit (Oxford 2014). The introduction assures readers there will not be chapters such as “The Good Lawyer Uses Proper Citation Format.” (Why not? asks the legal writing professor.)

Instead, The Good Lawyer explores empathy, courage, willpower, valuing others in the legal community, intuition as well as deliberation, realistic thinking, the pursuit of justice, integrity, and persuasion. Its final chapter addresses the difficulty of all of these in the current legal climate. 

The book is largely aspirational but delves into skills and techniques. Its first chapter—”The Good Lawyer Is Empathetic”—would be valuable to any lawyer who wants to be a better listener.

Empathy has been defined as “our ability to identify what somebody else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts or feelings with an appropriate emotion.”

And what are the actual benefits of a lawyer’s being empathetic?

First, empathy enables you to acknowledge and respect other people’s thoughts, so they feel valued. Second, empathy substantially reduces the likelihood of miscommunications that can lead to wasted effort and counterproductive results. Third, as you become more aware of other people’s feelings, you more readily assess their feelings toward you and can make adjustments to smooth things over when necessary.* . . . Fourth, having walked inside another’s skin, you’ll be better able to compellingly tell that person’s story, should the time and place arise for it.

*The omitted portion of the quote says this: “When others think you’re being a jerk, at least you know it soon enough to stop your jerk-like behavior and apologize.”

I am well aware of the sentiment that being a jerk is necessary or even desirable at times, as a way of serving a client’s interests. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that’s not the agenda of Linder and Levit. In their chapter on serving the true interests of clients, they walk through various roles a lawyer may serve: helping the client win; being a “mere tool” of the client’s autonomy; or essentially telling the client what to do based on the lawyer’s legal expertise.

Their recommended approach is none of these in isolation. Instead they embrace more of a collaborative deliberation: “The most demanding and also the most rewarding function that lawyers perform is to help their clients decide what it is that they really want, to help them make up their minds as to what their ends should be” (quoting Anthony Kronman). Linder and Levit acknowledge that “many forces today conspire to limit opportunities for lawyers and clients to enter into deep moral conversations, as friends might do.”

They go on to discuss specific communication techniques to help lawyers learn more about their clients’ interests in meaningful conversations. For example lawyers can frame conversations in terms of “we” (i.e. the lawyer and client together). Lawyers can ask clients who else would be affected by various approaches, and how those others might respond. 

These suggested techniques are valuable, yet perhaps meager given what it takes to forge a truly collaborative relationship and be someone’s friend in a moral sense. On this point and others, the book was (lightly) critiqued by David Lat in the Wall Street Journal as being better at issue-spotting than at deeply diving into practical solutions. 

The issues to be spotted include a number of tough questions. For example, are empathetic lawyers born, or can they be made? Linder and Levit review psychological literature showing that empathy can be taught in the sense that people can get better at recognizing emotions. The evidence is weaker for the teachability of the empathetic response. A checklist on “How to Make the Most of Your Empathy” (page 17) would be a good primer for new lawyers, or for more experienced lawyers who want to work on making a better connection with clients. The book also cites the scholarship of Kristin Gerdy and Ian Gallacher on incorporating empathy into legal education and teaching students how to “think like a non-lawyer.”

Another tough issue both individually and socially is whether empathy can  actually be harmful. Highly empathetic people may burn out and run from extremely painful situations, or may cross ethical boundaries to help those with whom they empathize. (In raising the topic of whether judges should be empathetic, the book cites Justice Blackmun’s “Poor Joshua!” dissent, recently in the news again after the death of Joshua DeShaney at age 36.)

The chapter on persuasion features the book’s most specific treatment of listening and lawyering:

Listening and interpreting body language, two skills that allow us to understand—and then better influence—the thinking and emotion of others, receive nothing like the attention each deserves. Only by listening to a client can a lawyer understand what the client wants and develop a theme for a story that might help the client her goal, and listening carefully to a judge’s questions or remarks is essential to the process of addressing any concerns the judge might have with your argument. People, of course, send signals with their bodies, not just with their words, and being attentive to the body language of clients, witnesses, jurors, and judges also can be critical to a lawyer’s success. Sometimes lawyers are so focused on covering each of twenty points on the outline of an argument that they don’t see the judge or juror stifling a yawn, raising eyebrows, or crossing arms; these are all signs that the lawyers are going seriously off track and need to change course. Defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, describing the work of another lawyer he admired, said that he kept his eyes “ever on his audience.” Bailey continued, “The slightest quizzical brow, a mere change of impression of a single juror, these would be a sign from which he could shift and bear down on a point, paraphrase it if he thought the first shot hadn’t got through, or shift his topic if he thought attention was starting to drift.”

There is no chapter titled “The Good Lawyer Listens.” Yet The Good Lawyer advocates that the good lawyer does listen. Listening helps lawyers understand clients and make them feel valued. If that’s not enough, listening also helps lawyers figure out what to say.

Emotional intelligenceLegal communicationMediationPeople skillsProfessional development

Listening from ignorance to mastery

The Farnam Street blog has this, this morning on becoming a lifelong learner:

When assessing our competence in any particular discipline, we can place our level of ability somewhere along a continuum moving from ignorance, to conversational competence, to operational competence, then towards proficiency, and finally all the way to mastery.

The quote is from Laurence Enderson, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All the Difference, a collection of wisdom inspired by Charlie Munger, lawyer and vice chair of Berkshire Hathaway. I haven’t read the book, but Farnam Street extensively quotes its exhortations to move beyond “coasting,” and rather to embrace lifelong learning. The passage on this continuum of learning was of particular interest.

What would this continuum look like as applied to listening?

Ignorance

It seems like many are operating in a state of ignorance about listening as a concept and an improvable skill. Yet they may be decent or even very strong listeners. In the same way, a talented self-taught writer may not use the vocabulary learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but still produce great prose. On the other hand, many others are ignorant of listening and/or ignorant about how bad they are at listening. (This is the Dunning-Kruger effect, a delusion of competence that applies to listening as to any other skill and has been discussed on the blog here and here and here.)

Conversational Competence

For the rest of us—the coachable who haven’t yet been coached—a state of ignorance about listening seems inexcusable, although common. I say it’s inexcusable in part because “conversational competence” can be reached without a lot of effort. A bit of time spent learning active listening could be sufficient.

Operational Competence

The operational competence is harder. Actually practicing active listening is much more of a challenge than talking about it. And what if active listening isn’t even the right strategy?

Professor Neil Hamilton, in a formative law review article on listening, talked about passive listening as well. (Here’s the link: “Effective Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills.”) Passive listening has three components, according to Hamilton (citations omitted):

First, the attorney should place an emphasis on silence in conversations. “[A] brief but definite pause in a conversation” can be an effective tool, allowing the client to collect his or her thoughts and then provide information in a more comfortable fashion.The failure to allow periodic silence can interrupt a client‟s stream of association and make the client feel cut off, hurried, or pressured. Effective lawyers will often pause and allow the client to reflect before continuing with their dialogue.

The second key to passive listening is the use of “minimal prompts.” While silence can make some clients and lawyers uncomfortable, “minimal prompts” can let the client know that the lawyer is listening and understands what is being said.

The final passive-listening technique is the use of open-ended questions.

Of these three techniques, the first—using silence—seems by far the hardest. The role of silence is a challenge for many, perhaps especially for lawyers. Legal Zoom CEO John Suh recently offered the following statistic:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Before one becomes operationally competent in tolerating and even encouraging real silence, one must first be operationally competent in remaining silent while someone—such as a client—is talking.

Proficiency and Mastery

What makes a listener not only competent, but even proficient and, eventually, masterful? Malcolm Gladwell profiled “gifted listener” Konrad Kellen, the Vietnam consultant who was able to listen to interviews with the North Vietnamese without bias. This meant he did not allow the prevailing theory of the war to shape his perception of what they meant.

Listening without bias is closely connected to hearing what isn’t being said:

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

-Peter Drucker

In other words, great listeners overcome the “availability bias” of paying attention to what is on the list or what the witness is saying, instead of what is not.

So proficient listening is in part a set of technical skills such as appropriate body language, recall, notetaking, compensating for cognitive biases such as the availability bias. Professor Neil Hamilton’s article provides a variety of self-assessments and exercises. Taken together, the questions on the self-assessment provide a sort of schematic of a masterful listener. Here’s an excerpt:

  • I use head nods and facial expressions to indicate that I am listening to a speaker.
  • I establish and maintain eye contact with a speaker.
  • I maintain strong posture and avoid slouching during conversations.
  • I notice changes in a speaker’s volume or tone of voice or nonverbal expressions.

But masterful listening can be—and at least sometimes should be—more than a set of techniques. Hamilton ultimately approaches listening as a virtue. He writes that “listening requires the ability to empathize and relate authentically to a speaker, in addition to technical skills.”

One difficulty lawyers face with the “virtuous listener” theory is what to do with those who act and speak in bad faith. Even with their own clients, lawyers may need to “trust, but verify.” 

If the true sign of genius is being able to hold two opposing truths in mind at the same time and still function (paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald), then the lawyer-as-listener who reaches mastery is indeed a sort of genius. The lawyer uses all the technical tools of listening. More broadly, the lawyer achieves the virtues of empathy and connectedness—but only when appropriate. Sometimes, as communication consultant Jennie Grau pointed out in her recent interview here, the lawyer-as-listener just has to “listen to respond” (not to understand). The mastery lies in knowing the difference.

I was going to end on that note, but that’s not quite enough. Sometimes a situation that begins with hostility and distrust can be transformed into a real opportunity to resolve a dispute, such as in mediation. Listening has a key role to play here. It’s certainly not easy, and listening may seem at times like a zero-sum game with many players. For example, what if the client (who may not be an advanced listener) perceives the lawyer has somehow empathized too much with the mediator or “the enemy”? The difficulty of these situations is exactly why there’s a difference between the lawyer with competence and the one with mastery. When the conditions are right, the masterful listener can use the tools and virtues of listening not just to encounter and understand a situation, but to change it.

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

Emotional intelligenceGenderInnovationLeadershipLegal communication

Listening analytics?

One of my favorite sayings is from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Slide1

Kenneth Grady’s Seytlines blog is an exercise in what Fitzgerald meant. In Grady’s essays on innovation in the legal industry—what it needs and where it is stagnating—human skills including “soft skills” have never been more valuable. Yet humans must use processes and systems and technology to avoid losing the competition to deliver value. Individual lawyers in all of their humanity have never been less expendable—or more.

Grady’s recent post Talking About Lawyer Performance illustrates the tension:

Providing legal services today involves much more than listening to a client’s problem and giving an opinion or delivering a document. It is a complex task in a fast moving environment that involves a much deeper and more nuanced understanding the environment in which the client operates. This isn’t an equation solely for large law firms and corporate legal departments, it is true throughout all levels of legal services delivery. Individuals’ lives are much more complicated today than 10, 20 or 30 years ago, so advising them isn’t as easy today as it was then.

This complexity manifests in the idea that legal-services delivery should be examined and broken into more distinct parts. This idea is pervasive throughout the legal-innovation conversation, and I’d like to think more about how it affects listening.

There may be a tradeoff in client satisfaction unless technological innovations are built with empathy and surgically precise understanding of how to approximate human interaction, and when actual real-time conversations and face time are crucial. On the other hand there will be a gain in client satisfaction if perceived unnecessary conversations where the client keenly feels the billing clock ticking are reduced or even eliminated. As I said, I’d like to think more about the delivery questions—and mostly I would just like to learn from those such as Grady and Patrick Lamb and Jeff Carr and others, the gurus in this area.

Beyond the questions of legal services delivery are deeper questions about what an individual lawyer does. (See Grady’s post on Defining the Unique Role of the Lawyer.) The analytical and problem-solving contributions are inextricably wrapped in the soft skills used to deliver them. As Grady has written elsewhere, “During the next decade, the skills that make up personality will play an increasingly important role.”

But do not believe that means the lawyer is unique beyond measure. Even the most human of human skills can benefit from systems analysis because even the most human of interactions can be measured:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.

This was the part of the Lawyer Analytics post that really stood out. This blog has talked at various times about the problem of measuring listening. If you can’t measure it, you probably can’t assess it in a meaningful way. Perhaps these “sociometric devices” are the beginning of a solution to the problem.

When I first got started blogging here, I read a difficult but rewarding academic book, Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life, in which a scholar, Frederick Erickson, analyzed detailed transcripts of several conversations recorded in 1974: a blue-collar family at dinner, a college counselor and a student who was eligible for the Vietnam draft, a combined kindergarten-first grade class, and a medical resident and intern diagnosing a difficult case. He parsed every last detail of these conversations and even showed how they could be rendered with musical notation:

image

This book is where I learned the concept of the “conversation turn,” which essentially means taking over or handing back the conversational flow to your conversation partner. (See prior post on the “turn sharks” in law school.)

How do a bunch of random conversations in 1974 relate to legal skills today? Some things don’t change: Being a good listener means mastering conversation turns to keep the conversation going without taking over.  Just refer to Pam Woldow’s lengthy discussion of “manterruptions,” and the gender imbalance in who does the interrupting versus gets interrupted, to understand the relevance of conversation turns today. (Part I of Woldow’s series is here.)

The conversation studies in Erickson’s book were fascinating but clearly expensive to create and difficult to replicate.  With newer and more affordable technology like the sociometric device described in Lawyer Analytics, people won’t need to be invited to a scholarly study to get this kind of data. (To see the logical and alarming extension of these possibilities, read this article on “searchable speech.”)

The possibilities of these devices inevitably bring to mind FitBits. Ken Grady’s boss Stephen Poor has already covered that ground for lawyering generally in “FitBits, Data and Lawyers.” On quantifying communication specifically, it seems pretty likely that we will soon have relatively affordable “FitBits” for listening.

Law firm managementPeople skillsProfessional development

Listening for healthy signs

The Dean of Hastings College of Law, Frank Wu, recently wrote a widely shared article in Huffington Post, “Why Law Firms Fail.” He states a counterintuitive hypothesis:

Law firms fail for many reasons. Among them is not one that might be expected. Very few, if any, of the law firms that have “failed” has foundered because the people employed there were lousy lawyers.

The causes of these debacles are varied: too much debt or space, not enough revenues or collegiality (the latter merely referring to how to divide the former), geographic expansion for its own sake, promises to lateral recruits that cannot be sustained according to any rational calculations, and so on.

As I read the article, I wondered whether there is a connection to listening. Poor skills in business and management are the real culprits, Wu says:

It is necessary to be great businesspeople, too. Or to affiliate with great businesspeople, which means recognizing that the technical skills needed to be a great lawyer might (or might not) correlate with the other skills needed to thrive.

Dean Wu emphasizes hard skills such as understanding debt and managing costs such as compensation. But soft skills—including what might be called advanced business listening—are surely part of the solution as well. In the “business world” (acknowledging very broad generalization here), listening is recognized as at least helpful, if not essential, to effective management—as well as under-appreciated and often poorly practiced in the field. Anyone who follows LLL’s Twitter feed will know how often it draws upon the Harvard Business Review, which addresses listening skills quite a bit such as here and here and here and here.

The kind of listening that may be most pragmatically effective for addressing the failures Wu describes is the most difficult listening of all: listening for what isn’t there. (Peter Drucker: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”)  Listening for the client pitch that could involve multiple client-service teams in a law firm but goes ahead with just one team. Listening for the lawyer on a complementary team who isn’t saying much about the opportunity he or she didn’t get. Listening for the lunch meeting that never gets set up with the attorney who isn’t in the office that much anymore. Listening for the sound of one foot out the door.

This isn’t just about the technical definition of listening as a receptive communication skill, although face-to-face conversations are a major opportunity for sensing these issues. It’s more about broadly sensing and perceiving what is happening—and not happening—inside the business.

Sensing what isn’t there is one of the hardest things. For both individuals and groups, the absences and gaps are overshadowed by the what is there: the pitches that do happen, the events that do take place, and the lunches that people do make time for. The cognitive experts, drawing on Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s work, call this “WYSIATI”: What You See Is All There Is. For lawyers and firm managers, if they are seeing clients and revenue and billable hours, it may be very difficult to see the opportunities that aren’t happening. (Read more on Kahneman’s work and how it relates to lawyers and listening here and here and here. And here and here are a couple of good reviews of his book more generally.)

What are the ways to compensate for these biases and better understand what’s not happening? First, there is general investment in being connected to colleagues: staying in touch with people and having conversations. Good conversations create the opportunity to perceive not just what people say (“Hey, everything is going really well! Working with the XYZ client is really keeping me busy”) but also what they don’t say and what their nonverbal behavior may reveal. (The New York Times did a nice piece on Anita Cicero, partner in charge of the D.C. office of Drinker, Biddle, and Reath. She mentioned listening as key to her management job and her client-relations job. And this article on “7 Habits of Highly Effective Law Firm Leaders” alludes to the importance of being visible and listening to others’ perspective throughout the firm.)

Second, it’s possible to mitigate the WYSIATI problem with methods such as checklists and skillful use of questions. Checklists are not the most glamorous management technique in the world, but they are quite effective for certain situations. (Read Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto. Please.) Checklists are known and even loved for catching mistakes. The “smart” lawyers Wu is talking about may congratulate themselves on their amazing checklists for producing great client work.

But checklists are more than a stupid-mistake-prevention technique. Teams and organizations can use certain kinds of checklists to force collaboration and conversation at specified points. Only in that way can checklists even begin to address complex long-term projects such as building a skyscraper—or maintaining a thriving law firm.

This type of listening is not just for recognizing problems as they occur, but also for productively collaborating in a way that anticipates and plans, addressing “issues” before they even become “problems.” Ken Grady of Seytlines has recently bemoaned the emphasis on the reactive, failure-based culture of much legal training. When we talk about listening, it needs to be stressed that listening is not just for recognizing problems but also anticipating and preventing them. Thus, this type of advanced business listening will sense opportunities ready to be created: The client pitch that can involve multiple teams. The contribution that a lawyer or team can make to a new representation. The lunch meeting that can launch a new collaboration within the firm.

For this kind of collaborative, anticipatory checklist, meeting face-to-face at strategic points is part of what Gawande recommends, along with prompting all members of the team to contribute in a constructive way. (Thus a regular law-firm meeting stuffed with top-down lecturing and cursory Q&A wouldn’t really count. Likewise an open-ended venting session with no particular goal is not what he is talking about.)  I am certain that many healthy law firms use practices consistent with what Gawande recommends, whether they are intentionally implementing a checklist-based management theory or not.

It would be interesting to hear more from readers about checklists for law-firm management, and more broadly how listening may play a role in law firms’ strategic planning and management. And even more broadly still, how can law firms and lawyers, and law schools as well, respond to the challenge of Dean Wu’s article on why law firms fail?


If you are really interested in checklists, here is the link to a 4-part series I wrote on checklists as a tool for legal project management. That series was more about being a smart and good lawyer in the nuts-and-bolts sense—which, as Dean Wu pointed out, is not quite enough to maintain a successful law firm.

 Thanks to Joe Fore of the University of Virginia for providing feedback on an earlier draft.

Client developmentClinical legal educationCollaborationEmotional intelligenceEthics

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?
Client developmentEmotional intelligenceLaw firm marketingLegal communicationPeople skills

Listening and legal marketing

This blog is a place where not only lawyers but all legal professionals can come together around the topic of listening. Listening helps to bind us together in productive work—or hold us apart, when we listen poorly. Legal marketing professionals have a huge contribution to make here, as they really know deep in their bones the importance of listening to the client (and the potential client) in a variety of ways. I didn’t attend last week’s annual conference of the Legal Marketing Association, but the meeting produced an excessive and interesting number of live tweets, so I decided to point out some themes of interest here on the blog.

The keynote was by Daniel Pink, and he kicked it off by invoking Alec Baldwin’s ABC moment—”Always Be Closing”—from Glengarry Glen Ross to set the stage. (I thought about linking that clip here but it is quite NSFW.)

Dan Pink suggests a new set of ABC’s for a world where the seller no longer has superior information to the buyer. Instead, the key principles to successful sales, or marketing, or whatever term makes you comfortable when it comes to finding potential clients and convincing them to use your services—which this blog fundamentally assumes to be activities of interest to most lawyers and legal professionals—are attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. If attendees got one thing from Pink’s keynote, it would be these three principles:

Each of these principles has something to do with listening, I think, with attunement at the top of the list.

A. Attunement and listening mutually reinforce each other

Attunement means being able to understand the client’s point of view. Being open to the other person’s perspective is crucial:

But it’s not the same thing as emotional intelligence:

To stress the point, what the other side is thinking is at least as crucial and probably more so than what they are feeling:

Tweets from other sessions, not the keynote, touched on attunement in different ways such as handling the pitch meeting and maintaining the relationship:

Attunement remains crucial throughout the relationship, when things are going well . . .

. . . and especially when the relationship may be going south:

One tweet pointed out the importance of attunement for legal marketers in their role as facilitators of business delivered by others:

This was an intriguing point with several interpretations. Maybe it’s necessary to understand “the service” and the providers of that service, and the strengths and weaknesses of both. As a witness in one of my first IP cases said, “My job is to make sure the sales team only sells what the engineering team can actually deliver.” Or maybe it’s necessary in the sense of how the legal marketer adds value to a law firm: legal marketers who are superior at attunement to client needs add irreplaceable value to the law firm’s team of professionals.

And this point about attunement in a three-point relationship (legal client/legal marketer/lawyer) may be expanded to the cover lawyers. Being attuned to the knowledge and expertise of the legal marketers who specialize in understanding clients and potential clients can help lawyers better understand their clients as well.

B. Buoyancy means dealing with rejection

The value of buoyancy apparently came wrapped in some generalities about lawyers’ perhaps non-buoyant personalities:

But relationships can help:

The tweets don’t say this, but isn’t it clear that listening is a great tool for anybody to build relationships with mentors and sponsors?

I’ll have to read Pink’s book To Sell Is Human to get a fuller picture of what he says on buoyancy. He also wrote the book (literally) on motivation, which leads me to expect words of wisdom on self-talk, or internal dialogue. What do lawyers and legal professionals hear when they listen to their own self-talk? To be buoyant, we need healthy ways of handling self-talk. And if our self-talk is overwhelmingly negative, we probably can’t listen effectively to others for problem-solving and relationship-building.

C. Clarity is about finding problems and curating information to help solve them

The clarity principle seems to focus on finding problems and sharing information in productive ways. Pink spoke about helping clients find problems:

The part about not being a problem solver is interesting. “Solving” problems too quickly can itself cause problems, such as not fully understanding the actual problem and not forging the relationship necessary to address it. And jumping in to answer a question, rather than fully hearing someone out, is a hallmark of bad listening.

So finding problems is part of clarity, and the most advanced way to do this is to find the problems that are hard to perceive:

The theme of information saturation plays a continuing role throughout these new ABC’s. For example, clarity is a huge part of content strategy, basically selecting and sharing what clients and potential clients really need to know:

And that brings us full circle to the role of the legal marketing professional. Revealing more about who the clients are and what they need helps everyone:

“Personas” and “key client types” may be a bit jargon-y, but lawyers and legal marketing professionals can work together to understand each other’s language and the ideas behind that language. Listening to one another in this way helps with the broader common goal of listening to the client. Listening helps with all of the new ABC’s of selling, which in turn lead to getting business, forming relationships, and ultimately serving clients in effective ways.

Pink’s keynote at LMA drew extensive on his book To Sell Is Human. For those interested in seeing him present the ideas, here’s a webinar hosted at the Harvard Business Review. And Nancy Myrland has collected all of the blog posts from the LMA15 meeting here.

LeadershipLegal skillsPeople skillsProfessional developmentProfessional responsibility

Where competence and character come together

The nice thing about Twitter is you can learn from events you can’t actually attend. Today Stephen M.R. Covey (son of the 7 Habits guy) spoke at the “DEXIO” conference in Canada: Developing Excellence in Others. This slide from Covey’s talk caught my eye:

(HT to @ITCatherine for the slide.)

Covey’s list of 13 leadership behaviors wasn’t specifically aimed at lawyers as leaders, but it might as well have been. The behaviors were organized into three major categories — competence, character, and the convergence of the two.

Competence was an interesting category and one that will feel good to many lawyers because we are generally very smart and good at the tasks of lawyering. But being competent isn’t enough to succeed in a collaborative work environment. UC-Hastings Dean Frank Wu wrote about this in his Huffington Post column on Why Law Firms Fail. Likewise, while character is essential, it’s also not enough by itself to make a good lawyer.

The convergence category was the payoff of this slide. While competence and character are obviously indispensable to the work of a legal professional, each on its own is not enough. On the slide, Covey lists three behaviors where competence and character come together:

  • listening first
  • keeping commitments
  • extending trust

Obviously I was excited to see listening on that list. Good listeners are highly competent, and good listeners also show great character. Or we could state the opposite: Poor listening can lead to incompetence, such as by not being able to get results because crucial facts or motives were not perceived. (Ouch.) And poor listening may be perceived as disrespectful and therefore a sign of poor character. (Double ouch.)

But the deeper point here is about what it means to be a “high-trust leader” (the title of Covey’s slide) and to develop excellence in others (the theme of the conference). For lawyers responsible for developing excellence in others, what behaviors do they use to do so? Some may take a bit of a muscular attitude toward developing excellence: “I’m going to model it and you can watch and learn.”

Or a senior lawyer may effectively “teach” excellent swimming by throwing juniors into the pool. This approach was apparent in a training video from Hogan Lovells shown at the 2016 American Association of Law Schools’ Annual meeting (video at minutes 8:30-16:10) :

In that video, a senior lawyer was faced with a potential conflict over work allocation among two juniors on his team. To get excellence from this team, he was going to have to go beyond being a good lawyer and nice guy. His response to the conflict? Something along the lines of: “They’re adults; they’re going to have to work this out. I don’t have time for it.” So this guy was clearly not what Hogan Lovells was offering up as a great example of leadership. Maybe he could have used a little more listening, a little more trust-building. He seemed like a good lawyer — very competent and unassailable character. But something was lacking in the way he approached the situation. Maybe it was those behaviors at the intersection of competence and character.

Writing this post made me want to read Deborah Rhode’s book Lawyers as Leaders. For those who have, what would Rhode say about the behavioral categories in Covey’s slide above? How would she approach the hands-off lawyer attempting to lead a team in the Hogan Lovells video?

Thanks to Jennifer Kahnweiler for correcting an earlier version that misidentified Stephen M.R. Covey as his father, Stephen Covey.

Clinical legal educationLaw practiceLaw schoolLegal educationLegal skills

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.