Lawyers and hearing loss: two profiles

Hearing loss is a challenge for anyone whose job requires communication. Last week, Listen Like a Lawyer reviewed Katherine Bouton’s excellent book Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You. This week features interviews with two lawyers who experienced quite different trajectories of hearing loss but shared a similar open, constructive mindset.

Image%5b1%5dPatti Richards is a tax attorney practicing independently in Atlanta. She lost some hearing in her right ear after contracting measles at age 5. She had experimental surgery as a child and went on to teach high school, attend law school, and practice law for ten years until 1999.

At that point, when she was 50, her hearing had become severely degraded. Her left ear did not hear at all, and the hearing in her right ear was weakening. Richards had surgery on the right ear to reconstruct the deteriorating bone structure. The damage turned out to be too extensive. “Since then,” Richards said, “it has been a process of constant reinvention.”

Richards began the process of fitting a hearing aid. Her experience was typical in that several readjustments were necessary: “The first time I left the audiologist’s office, the elevator bell dinged on my floor—then it dinged two more times.” She has since gotten good adjustments on a Phonak hearing aid. She does not need a special cell phone that cuts feedback; she holds a regular cell phone so as to reduce feedback in the hearing aid, or she uses speakerphone.

The nature of her hearing loss does not lend itself to cochlear implants. Her remaining hearing is compromised by allergy symptoms, so she takes an aggressive course of allergy shots.

Richards is a tax attorney. For listening to clients, she uses the auditory input with help from the hearing aid, as well as other inputs: “You can listen other ways by reading what they say, their gestures and body language.” But she noted that with a tax practice, what her clients need most of all is help understanding tax jargon and tax consequences. Thus her practice leans more heavily on her speaking and writing skills in explaining how tax law works.

“I’ve been fortunate my whole life,” she said. She recalled the sacrifice her parents made for her have the experimental surgery as a child; thinking about that sacrifice made it easier for her to accept the hearing loss and move on. “For a long time, I didn’t have to tell people about it, but now I do,” she said. “But I won’t let it drag me down and stop me.”

Dave Thomas has a “tremendously personal” practice as an executive-compensation attorney with Wilson Sonsini in Silicon Valley. At age 40, he suffered substantial hearing loss in his right ear after a sinus infection.image001-2

Thomas worked with doctors for three months to determine whether the hearing loss was permanent. A hearing test, CT scan and MRI revealed that the problems with his hearing weren’t structural. The doctors said there was a chance the hearing would return, but Thomas faced a choice: “You can have diminished hearing and hope it comes back, or you can treat it.”

The choice wasn’t difficult for Thomas. He had seen his own father struggle with hearing loss, caused by service as an artillery officer, in his older years. “It took forever to convince him to get hearing aids,” Thomas said, and when his father did begin using hearing aids, “it was like night and day watching him be be able to engage in conversation again and engage in life again.”

After the battery of tests, Thomson got a hearing aid, which—as is the case for many if not all hearing-aid users—has required some adjustments. Thomas had lost the middle auditory tones, which led to difficulty tracking conversation in groups and hearing what direction speech is coming from. The hearing aid provides valuable amplification of these tones, but too much amplification sometimes means Thomas can hear ceiling fans. He has worked hard with his audiologist to amplify the tones where he has trouble while avoiding the distraction of amplifying other tones.

Other strategies including positioning himself to put his “good side” toward the room. If it’s a boardroom negotiation, that means sitting on the corner of the table. When he speaks on panels, he asks to sit on the far right of the panel. Thomas describes himself as a “right ear person” until the hearing loss; now he uses a headset in his left ear for phone conferences. Many people struggling with hearing loss describe wearing their hear longer to cover the hearing aids, but Thomas said he had already started wearing relatively longer hair before the hearing loss. Regardless of hairstyle, he said, the hearing aid is small enough to not be noticeable unless you’re looking for it.

Thomas has some advice to other lawyers who think they may have hearing loss. “My advice is that number one, they figure it out. Go see an audiologist or ENT and have a hearing test. As lawyers, we don’t ever give our clients advice without making sure know the facts, but with personal health we’re often willing to make assumptions and avoid fact gathering.”

He also praised the technology and various cost options for handling hearing loss. Hearing aids can be pricey, but Costco is one option for reducing the cost and gaining flexibility with adjustments and returns, he said.

Thomas could do well as a coach if he decides to transition out of his executive-compensation practice. “If you need a hearing aid, own it. Deal with it,” he said. “The hearing aid lets me sit back in board meetings and go back to listening and thinking instead of worrying about hearing.”

Lawyers and hearing loss

Hearing is necessary for effective listening. Thus, hearing loss is a critical issue for professions that require listening, such as lawyering. In her frank and informative book, Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You, former newspaper editor Katherine Bouton describes her struggle with hearing loss while trying to do a job comparable in many ways to lawyering.

ImageAs her hearing was declining—always in conjunction with personal stress such as her father’s death—Bouton was faced with boisterous editorial meetings and intense individual conversations. She tried to hide her deteriorating hearing for many years but ultimately began to accept help via hearing aids and other technology. Bouton tells her story in such an honest way; I can’t recommend this book enough. For further praise of the book, see Seth Horowitz’s New York Times review.

Hearing loss is far more common than many would expect. An estimated 48 million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss (about 17 percent of the population). “Nearly one in five people, across all age groups, has trouble understanding speech, and many cannot hear certain sounds at all,” Bouton writes, citing Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Frank Lin. With approximately 1 million American lawyers in practice, the same math suggests that more than 170,000 lawyers are facing some degree of hearing loss.

Yet hearing loss is “an invisible disability”: “There’s no white cane to signal a problem, no crutches, . . . no bandages or braces,” Bouton writes. The lack of outward signals can mask various efforts to compensate. “Most hearing-impaired people quickly learn to nod or smile or respond in a noncommittal way, taking their signal from the speaker and the people around them.” These forms of compensation are imperfect at best, as Bouton acknowledges: “I lose the train of the discussion and ask a question that was just answered. I think we’re talking about one thing when we’re talking about something completely different.” And over time, the accumulation of awkwardness can lead to isolation and withdrawal. Bouton describes how she maintains her social lifelines, yet she also decided long ago not to participate in group conversations except with her closest friends.

Shouting Won’t Help is both a personal narrative and a treatise on hearing impairment. Bouton traces her own diminished hearing and environmental aggravators—primarily, noise. She acknowledges her fear of the conditions associated with hearing loss such as depression, heart disease, insomnia, and dementia. As to dementia, the correlation maybe a side effect of social isolation or cognitive overload, or there may be a common pathology—which, to Bouton and anyone facing hearing loss, is “deeply distressing.”

Bouton’s work is a particularly helpful read for lawyers because her work as a senior editor at the New York Times had a lot in common with lawyering. She struggled in phone conversations, editorial meetings where people talked over one another, and group lunches in noisy restaurants. She missed a lot in large public events such as the Broadway plays she was assigned to cover. “I communicated with my writers as much as possible either face-to-face, where I could read their lips, or by e-mail. I e-mailed people who were ten feet away. But there were a couple of writers who wanted to talk—by phone. Often these calls would go on for a half hour or forty minutes, with me catching just as much as I needed to murmur occasionally ‘That sounds good,’ ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ or ‘Well, just get it to me as soon as you can.'”

As Bouton came to terms with her impairment and need for hearing aids, she began talking to some trusted former colleagues. They had noticed behaviors that could describe lawyers’ attempt to compensate as well. As one friend and colleague remarked, “’I did notice that you often held back at meetings, and didn’t necessarily engage in conversational back-and-forth after you’d given your own assessment of a piece. . . . I recognized a certain reticence in your approach to the job. I could see from your reading of our knottier science stories that your analytical gifts were considerable, and yet I sensed a reluctance to use them fully in face-to-face interactions. I attributed this reticence to temperament, or to a discomfort with the management of the magazine, or to . . . a waning of interest in the workaday routines of journalism after years in the trenches.’”

As her hearing loss became more severe, Bouton was forced to accept the loss and seek help. Her book describes many methods for addressing hearing loss, from hearing aids and cochlear implants to phone amplifiers, caption technology, and special alarm clocks that mimic the sun at dawn. Technology called hearing loops can help with otherwise incomprehensible noise in public spaces such as museums and ticket loops. Bouton worked intensively with doctors and audiologists, using virtually every technology available. Yet she also experienced rough transition with some of her hearing aids and a missed opportunity to fully adjust to the cochlear implant.

Despite aversion to being a “joiner,” she also joined the Hearing Loss Association and attended meetings, where she met new people and kept up with new technology. Although her adjustments were time-consuming and results imperfect at time, Bouton concludes the book with gratitude—both for the many advances making now a “good time to be deaf” and, on an individual level, for the “freedom of coming clean” and not having to “fake it” anymore.

Next week Listen Like a Lawyer will feature interviews with lawyers who have faced and adjusted to hearing impairment in their life and work. Please share your thoughts below or contact me at if you would like to share your experience with hearing loss.

Lawyers and hearing loss: seeking input

Earlier today I participated in a very difficult conference call. I was listening on a handheld cordless phone. On the receiving end, a cellphone set to speaker was on the table surrounded by seven people.

These folks—who made every conscious effort to include me—also conducted the meeting in the grand tradition of meetings, often mumbling, interrupting, and talking over one another. I could only hear about half of what was said. This frustrating inability to hear and follow the conversation was a reminder of what people with hearing loss face on a daily basis.

If you are a legal professional dealing with hearing loss and if you would like to be interviewed or share advice with Listen Like a Lawyer’s readers, please comment below or e-mail me at The hope is that this conversation can help affected legal professionals to recognize and address hearing loss, and help others understand more about this issue in the legal workplace as well.