Effective listening is crucial to establishing rapport with clients, witnesses, and anyone, really. But effective listening also contributes to lawyers’ analysis, strategy, and future workload in several concrete ways.
1. Listening Contributes to Case Analysis and Strategy
Listening is a complex act that entails simultaneous hearing, processing, decision-making about whether and when to speak, memory, prioritization, and reiterations of all of the above. The act of listening is deeply intertwined with thinking and learning. Is someone a “quick study”? That’s a great compliment, and a major factor in being a “quick study” is effective listening.
A lawyer who is able to listen effectively and consistently during long meetings and lengthy testimony will have a head start on case analysis. Identifying potential issues, categorizing relevant knowns and unknowns, prioritizing next steps: all of these analytical and strategic tasks are greatly aided by effective listening.
2. Listening Helps Avoid Nasty Surprises Later
Surprises are unavoidable in law practice. What is so frustrating is when—after a witness has flailed on the stand or a client has suddenly found documents that should have been produced earlier—the lawyer recalls something that was said, foreshadowing the exact event now happening.
Effective listening is spontaneous listening, not robotically tied to an outline or checklist.
And spontaneous listening allows the lawyer to make adjustments and veer off script when the lawyer hears something that isn’t quite right. Carefully listening for potential surprises allows the lawyer to ask better questions and listen with more focus to the specific answers. It’s a virtuous cycle that minimizes the risk of later surprise.
3. Listening Can be a Way of Letting Others do the Work
Many experts extol the benefits of passive or open-ended listening. The listener lets the speaker tell the story. Interruptions are minimal, such as “Tell me more,” or “I’d like to know more about that.”
These general cues to the speaker to keep talking signal that the listener is receptive to what the speaker has to say. The speaker is then free to share the story as he or she sees it. Thus the lawyer hears what the speaker thinks is important, and why the speaker thinks certain things happened. What comes out of a conversation like this could be a deeply satisfying narrative that goes well beyond the stock narrative the lawyer had in mind.
Or what may come out of a conversation like this is a revelation that conflicts with the story the lawyer wants to tell. Either way, listening to the unfolding narrative is often far more efficient than what happens when a lawyer over-manages the conversation, failing to learn valuable information.
4. Listening Helps with Setting Priorities
Whether a lawyer is listening to a client discussing legal matters or a senior lawyer discussing an assignment, effective listening provides many cues about prioritizing work.
Listening carefully to the client is crucially important. Listening to the client’s goals can, obviously, help the lawyer tailor legal services to meet those specific goals. More subtly, listening to what the client feels are important facts can help the lawyer shape the work to address the client’s beliefs and needs. Marketing experts talk about addressing a target market’s “pain points,” or difficult and important problems. By carefully listening to a client, a lawyer can learn more about that client’s pain points. These may be issues with the legal matter itself, with the client’s own internal issues including paperwork challenges and authority conflicts, or with the client’s overall goals in life or business.
Likewise inside the office, listening to colleagues working on the same legal matter is crucial to setting priorities. When a senior lawyer meets with a junior lawyer to delegate an assignment, that conversation contains many cues that can help the junior lawyer beyond just what is due and when. The junior lawyer may be able to glean the senior lawyer’s “pain points” in working on this case or in working with other lawyers. The senior lawyer may also hint at having a preconceived notion of the answer to an assignment. The junior lawyer can then prioritize the analysis to anticipate potential resistance, if the answer turns out to be unexpected.
And when the junior lawyer returns to the senior lawyer to discuss a project, the senior lawyer can pick up valuable cues through listening as well. What additional facts need to be investigated? What issues were on the periphery of the main question? Listening to the junior lawyer, including what the junior lawyer may have hesitated to put down in writing, can assist with ongoing decisions about the case.
5. Listening generates more work in the future—in a good way
Giving someone your undivided attention is a generous act—a gift, really. Offering that gift to clients builds relationships and motivates the client to return to the relationship for future work. Likewise, offering the gift of listening to another lawyer builds relationships. Lawyers may offer effective listeners more assignments or reach out about other opportunities such as networking and speaking.
Effective listening builds relationships.
Effective listening carries the most benefit when it is approached as a long-term investment. Thus, the benefits of listening are the broadest when a lawyer listens carefully not just to lead clients within a team or to senior lawyers who conduct professional evaluations. Listening pays off the most when it extends to a client’s entire team of employees, to peer lawyers, to legal staff, and to all others who may think well (or poorly) of that lawyer when future legal work is being allocated.
Effective listening is undoubtedly a “people skill” that is important for good first impressions. But it has many additional lasting benefits such as enhancing lawyers’ substantive understanding of their legal work and revealing strategic options in addressing clients’ and senior lawyers’ goals. Ultimately, effective listening contributes to lawyers’ success on individual legal matters and enhances their personal effectiveness throughout their law practice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jennifer Murphy Romig teaches legal writing, research, and advocacy at Emory Law School. She also consults with practicing attorneys on legal writing, and is the founder of the blog Listen Like a Lawyer, listenlikealawyer.com.