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.