The Trouble With Listening

At Defending People (Post 2015.20 for those of you who miss the Dewey Decimal System), Mark Bennett writes an homage to listening.

Listening is vital to trial lawyers. It’s probably more important than any other single skill, but it is less studied, less trained, and less practiced. Lawyers often don’t listen very well. I’ve seen egregiously bad examples from all sides of the criminal bar; many times I’ve wanted to shake a lawyer or judge by the collar and shout, did you not hear what that person just said?

One might suspect that Bennett has, in this paragraph, fully covered the subject with a bit of fascinating personal commentary thrown in for good measure. You would be wrong.

So I was thrilled to discover, via the Twitter Machine, Jennifer Romig’s Listen Like a Lawyer blog. It’s not really about listening like a lawyer, of course, since lawyers don’t listen very well, but about lawyers listening better.

Romig’s posts are lengthy, substantive, and link-rich. She’s writing for lawyers about things that lawyers need to know. (Before every trial I’m going to ask all of my juniors to read her recent post on second-chair listening.) This is the practical blawgosphere at its best. More, please.

Like Mark, I’m a huge fan of listening.  Active listening. Passive listening. Deep listening. Deeper listening. Witness response listening. Juror reply listening. Listening in all its many glorious permutations.  Why I could talk about listening forever and . . . wait. No, not really.

Is listening really a free-floating subject worthy of fascinating discussion?  I mean, Bennett’s written often about listening, but in context. Every experienced trial lawyer has the story of the kid getting up to cross with a ten-page list of questions, and we do the Picard epic double facepalm, knowing that the kid is going to run through those questions, one after another, without ever listening to the witness’ answers. And blow it completely.

But since Bennett is certainly right that listening is “vital to trial lawyers,” and says that  Jennifer Romig’s Listen Like a Lawyer blog “is the practical blawgosphere at its best,” and since Bennett knows stuff, I felt compelled to follow his lead. I clicked on the link to check out Romig’s blog.

Ironically, the story on top was about Keith Lee’s The Marble and the Sculptor.  I know a little something about that book, having written the forward.  Keith apparently spoke to Romig’s class at Emory, and the students thought very well of him. That’s great, because Keith has some very worthwhile things to say about listening.

In The Marble and the Sculptor, Keith Lee emphasizes communication — actually over-communication — with clients. This means keeping the client informed, of course. It also means taking time to get to know the client: “Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

This is one of Keith’s many kernels of advice to consider stealing.

Eh, not exactly.

(Actually he got it from and attributes it to Dan Hull of What About Clients.)

Well, yeah. That’s a key detail in appreciating Keith’s book, and his message, in that Keith has proven himself an excellent listener, capable of absorbing worthwhile messages of others and restating them in a way that is palatable to children.  The message is valuable. But the message was Hull’s. Hull said it. Keith listened well, and was able to repeat it. But I was quite unclear that Romig understood what Hull meant. Was she listening?

I remained unpersuaded that the post, the blog, was the practical blawgosphere at its best, and so I delved a little further.  On Romig’s sidebar were her twits (I was going to start calling these tweets recently, but readers spoke and I listened), and the twit at the top was a RT that linked to a post at another blog called Attorney At Work.

In my experience, when people hear the word “lawyer,” they think “stuffy, boring, conservative, narcissistic, ambulance-chasing jerk.” For some lawyers, the depiction is completely accurate. Unfortunately, their bad reputation has spread to all of us who practice law. Most of the lawyers I’ve met — and all the ones I associate with and refer work to — don’t fit that description. And for the record, I don’t either. Having to constantly fight the stereotype is annoying.

I “listened” to this paragraph. I listened deeply, actively, passively and then even more deeply. My head hurt.  The post went on to say:

Our mantra for 2015 should be: “Be a legal badass without being an asshole.”

Not that I’m against mantras suited for fortune cookies, but being a good listener, I listened.  This is the sort of cutesy, pseudo-cool idiotic crap that young lawyers adore because it sounds like the sort of thing they can agree with while having no substantive meaning whatsoever.

Which brings me to the trouble with listening.  When you listen, you hear. You learn, You absorb. You process. You can listen on a superficial level, and accept what you hear at face value. Or you can listen at a deeper level, seek meaning from the nuance, the multiple levels of cues that breathe life into what you are listening to.  And I did.

What I heard was . . . noise. Meaningless crap masquerading as thought.  And if this was what Romig thought was worthwhile, then I had to reread her blog post in light of my newfound bit of insight gained by being a good listener.  So I did.

What came through were appeals to authority, an excessive appreciation (I’m more inclined to say adoration) of jargon and a rather shallow understanding of what Hull was saying through Keith’s words.  I arrived at the inexorable conclusion that Romig wasn’t carefully listening.

As a premise, I agree with Romig, not to mention Bennett, that listening is a critical skill for lawyers, and one that too many lawyers lack.  But for those who do listen, consider that they will hear you, and you really ought to have something worthwhile to say.  If you don’t, a good listener will know it. And I did.

14 thoughts on “The Trouble With Listening

    1. SHG Post author

      And taste is not the same as appetite
      and therefore not a question of morals, is it?
      It could be argued so, master.
      That will do. My robe, Antoninus.

      When the shell is empty, there is nothing to taste. Even if the shell is very pretty.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Now now esteemed one take a chill pill and listen.

        William just sunk that thirty footer with nothing but net while you were abusing the keyboard.

        It’s Friday for crying out loud. Game on!

        P.S. Jenifer and William as a tag team vs. the esteemed one and ____? would make for an outstanding debut of Lawyers Orchestrating the Jubilee in bar parking lots.

        1. John Barleycorn

          Oh yeah I recently meet an outstanding traveling tailor who specializes in porn costumes and wrestling outfits if you find yourself in need of such expertise in the near future.

        2. John Barleycorn

          Well if only I read more carefully than I listened. *Mark is not William. Nice swish sound that ball Mark put in the net did make though.

          Good thing no one hires me to read, write, or listen.

    1. SHG Post author

      Because the Bennett seal of approval matters, at least to me. It’s as if he wrote that the Puddle was a cool place to learn how to practice law, because logos.

      And yes, it’s gratuitous. On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent any listener from hearing me and saying, “perhaps shallow crap isn’t good enough just because it’s on the internet.”

      1. John Barleycorn

        You just relax esteemed one…

        Jenifer’s premises is sound and not everyone can be as good looking as you in wrestling tights.

        Via her blawg in the about section:

        ~~~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.

        Thank you, and enjoy the blog’s journey exploring what it means to listen like a (really good) lawyer.~~~~

        A journey and exploration….

        I don’t think she has any intentional blinders on.

        Playing in the sand box nicely doesn’t mean dirt clods are off limits nor shoukd it make them the first choice.

        I must confess though, that I hope she stops by and challenges you to a dirt clod battle or some leg wrestling….or something though.

        P.S. Besides her -“intended audience is anyone interested in effective communication by lawyers” – like us “criminals” from the cheap seats. Although I should be pissed that she didn’t specially mention us “criminals” from the cheap seats.

  1. Jennifer Romig


    I actually blogged about your work previously here and was half-expecting some of the same feedback at the time. (Please never read my attempt at hipster humor in a post called Artisanal Listening.)

    But on the hard critique, the question I’m willing to keep struggling with–and apparently often failing at, from some perspectives–is how to get beyond the superficial agreement that listening is important and valuable. I’d like to interview more lawyers talking about how they listen, how they have developed their skills over time, and how they’ve seen lawyers fail when their listening fails (along the lines of Mark Bennett’s post on suicidal jury selection). More of that approach might be helpful with cutting jargon and sharing not just information but practical skills and wisdom.

    Jennifer Romig

    1. SHG Post author

      I think you’re trying to carve out a very difficult niche for yourself, Jennifer. Not because listening (I would prefer to call it “hearing,” but that’s just me) isn’t important. We all know it is. But it’s art, and you’re trying to make it science. Worse yet, stand alone science.

      And if you’re going to twit insipid stuff (like the badass nonsense or the Puddle), expect others to hear you.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Seth Horowitz concluded an article entitled The Art and Science of Listening he wrote for that newspaper you read too often esteemed one.

    He was down a slightly different but connected rabbit hole than you and Jenifer are addressing, being a neuroscientist, but nonetheless he concluded with this:

    ~~~The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.~~~

    Anyway, IMHO listening is both art and science.

    Not everyone is an artist but even old dogs can learn new tricks and techniques as well as share a few.

    Pro Tip: It is hard to be rowdy and listen at the same time. Take it from me up here in the cheap seats, if I am not too busy with my binoculars looking for new and interesting banners I am talking to much trying to whip up cheers to hear a thing! Don’t mean it ain’t no fun though.

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