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What it sounded like at the bar exam


This photo was taken at the Georgia bar exam in July 2013—but not much has changed in five years.

My own transition from the bar exam to law practice felt jarring. The solitude of studying and taking the exam gave way to a cacophony of interpersonal conversations. My listening “muscles” were atrophied, to say the least.

For those going immediately from the bar exam into practice–as well as those now headed into more job interviews–what strategies can they use to handle this transition? Mental rehearsal comes to mind: imagining situations involving in-depth listening and conversing, and then imagining specifics on what to do.

In the transition period, when new lawyers have a choice on how to communicate with family members, it might be worthwhile to replace some texting with phone calls, at least temporarily. (See this article from the Wall Street Journal on employees who keep in touch with parents throughout the work day by texting and chatting.)

It may be helpful to review a listening checklist (generally on preparing to listen or specifically for taking assignments) before going into a meeting or interview.

What other strategies could help new lawyers quickly “bridge the gap” to effective listening?

This post has been updated since it was originally published in August 2013.

Clinical legal educationLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

A model of listening

For background on listening skills, I wanted to learn more about college courses focusing on listening. The leading text seems to be Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills by Judi Brownell, professor of management and organizational behavior at the Cornell School of Hotel Management. This text has a lot of insights and I will be sharing them and applying them to the legal context throughout the life of the blog.

The backbone of Brownell’s approach is the “HURIER” model:

  • Hearing
  • Understanding
  • Remembering
  • Interpreting
  • Evaluating
  • Responding

Future posts will explore each step of the HURIER model. For now, here are a few holistic observations and broad applications for lawyers:

The proportions within the model are important: Responding makes up just one-sixth of it. This proportion confirms everyone’s intuition that a bad listener is someone who is just working up a response instead of actually engaging with what the speaker is saying. Clients need to be listened to and not talked over, and judges don’t want advocates to interrupt their questions. There are endless situations in the legal professional where speakers can make oafs out of themselves by talking without really listening. Future posts will explore how to mitigate bad listening habits like this and become more effective at listening.

As another broad observation on the HURIER model, it is not meant as a strictly linear or chronological outline of listening. According to Brownell, the model is based on a systems perspective, meaning the parts of the whole are interrelated and interdependent. (She cites Littlejohn’s Theories of Human Communication on this point.) Lawyers engage in so many complex communication situations that this interdependency should be very apparent. How we as lawyers interpret and evaluate depends in part on how much we hear and whether our attention was divided at the time. We can respond by clarifying points that enhance our understanding of the situation and help a further, more substantive response, but excessive requests for clarification could suggest that our hearing and/or understanding may be subpar. The overall process is not neatly linear but iterative and self-reinforcing.

The HURIER model has insights to offer for face-to-face interaction as well as mediated conversations such as videoconferencing and mediated asynchronous communication such as podcasts, webinars and MOOCs. The individual listener’s methods may differ depending on the situation: In a face-to-face meeting, a lawyer may ask a client to repeat something or may decide not to ask, so as not to interrupt the flow of conversation but rather to investigate later. In a webinar with a learning quiz attached, an attorney may choose to “rewind” the material to repeat something because the “flow” of conversation with the recording is unimportant. Listening contexts vary for lawyers as for everyone else, but the model remains informative.

And lastly, the model skirts around difficulties nailing down a specific definition of listening, Brownell writes. Perhaps the most authoritative definition is the International Listening Association’s : “Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.” For lawyers, each and every piece of this definition matters very much to their effectiveness.