Reflections on Teaching Law - Cultivating Listening Skills

Listening is an apothegmatic skill set for learning law. Contrary to popular presumption, listening is not a naturally occurring competence. Listening is an expertise that must be cultivated and refined. Hearing is not listening and wholesome ears, though assistive, do no guarantee effective listening ability. Listening is a deliberate cognitive undertaking that requires attention, curiosity, contextual knowledge, comprehension, and remembrance.

Sophisticated Listening. Good lawyers are sophisticated listeners as their listening ability is fully functional and fine-tuned. They listen to clients, witnesses, associates, partners, opposing attorneys, and judges. They listen through ears and through eyes for listening is a bi-sensory skill set of hearing and seeing at the same time. Sophisticated listeners understand that speech cannot be torn apart from nonverbal communications and gestures cannot be comprehended without reading facial expressions. Even boring and ineffective speakers are respected and heard, particularly when what they are saying is critical for the construction or resolution of a dispute.

Poor listening is concerned only with grabbing the obvious points. Seeking only the bottom line of an oral communication is lazy listening reductionism. Sophisticated listening is listening fully; it is catching the obvious as well as the fine points of a presentation. A sophisticated listener grasps not only what is said but also the implications of what is said and what is not said.

Sophisticated listeners know that speech can serve as a veil to hide facts and intentions. Clients, witnesses, and attorneys may speak in ways that conceal more than reveal. For instance, lawyers may need to press a witness not committed to what he or she is saying. This is possible only if the lawyer listens carefully to decode the lack of conviction behind the utterance. Likewise, the lawyer procures clues from eyes and facial contours to figure out whether there is more to the story than what the witness is telling. This probing is integral to listening. A poor listener is seldom good at cross-examination, interviewing, or client counselling.

Listening Training. Few law schools train students in the science of listening skills. In addition to substance of law, skills such as reading, writing, and speaking are deemed essential to legal education. Law students understand the significance of reading closely as they devour large reading assignments. Law students also understand the importance of writing, whether lawyers are engaged in litigation or transactional work. Many tasks that lawyers do, such as writing letters, memos, pleadings, and briefs, involve writing. Most law schools require students to take research and writing classes. Law schools are also pretty good in training students in persuasive speaking. Effective speaking skills are taught through simulated trials, moot court competitions, seminar presentations, and class participation. In sum, most law schools train students how to read legal materials, how to write legal papers, and how to speak effectively. Unfortunately, few law schools emphasize the benefits of listening. (Add to this my unconfirmed observation that most humans are by nature poor listeners as they love to yammer and entertain themselves by their own oration.)

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(Thanks to Pixabay)

Speech Diversity. Sophisticated listeners acquire comfort with diverse speech patterns, vocabulary, dialects, and accents in which English is spoken in the United States. In many jurisdictions, clients and even legal professionals with varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds may speak with distinct dialects, discrete vocabulary, and distinguishing accents. The lawyer cannot demand that clients or other lawyers speak in the lawyer's preferred dialect, speech pattern, or accent. Diverse dialects and accents within the same language cannot be discounted as speech disorders. The lawyer needs to put more effort in listening to unfamiliar speech patterns and accents just as the lawyer puts more effort in comprehending complex facts and dense statutes. Law schools with ethnically (and possibly linguistically) diverse faculty and diverse student bodies (possibly containing foreign students) furnish a natural environment for students, professors, and staff to appreciate that a language can be spoken in many different ways and the so-called standard version of any language, particularly English as a global language, is a moving goalpost. Hearing diverse dialects, speech patterns, and accents is a natural exercise to develop listening expertise.

Technical Vocabulary. Some areas of law, much like medicine and engineering, are structured on technical vocabulary that is not part of the mainstream language. Some law classes, such as family law, use legal vocabulary that many students may already know. In some law classes, the technical vocabulary is completely foreign to students, as foreign as a foreign language. For example, technical terms such as purchase-money security interest, chattel paper, and general intangibles contain specialized knowledge. Mere hearing such technical vocabulary is insufficient to understand its meaning. Listening in such classes is more productive if students put additional effort in carefully mastering the background knowledge embedded in technical vocabulary.

Retrievable Retention. Comprehending and remembering are two essential parts of listening. Listening without comprehending is useless for in that case the listener is hearing empty noises in familiar or unfamiliar language. If the listener does not remember what he heard, listening is fruitless. Thus the retention of content is as important as its comprehension, and the two frequently go together. Deeper the comprehension, the better is the retention. However, retention does not guarantee an efficient and accurate retrieval of what is comprehended. For improving retrieval, students may need practice, expert counselling, and other appropriate remedies.

Avoidable Distractions. Gratuitous distractions can undermine an otherwise efficacious listening experience. It is no secret that listening in a classroom setting is a shared enterprise. The "butterfly effect" can ruin the listening experience for all. For example, if a student pulls in late, leaves early, or comes and goes during the lecture, these butterfly movements, even if preformed quietly, can unleash quiet chaos in the listening atmosphere. These avoidable promenades interrupt the stream of listening. There are other avoidable distractions, such as poor acoustics, laughter or cackling in adjacent areas, stench of pizza, dysfunctional technology, or students sipping soda, eating donuts, or browsing the internet. Multitasking is a huge barrier to listening. Multitasking is an easy distraction to draw away from listening if the materials are complex, technical vocabulary is difficult, or the student is sad, angry, or plain bored for some personal reason.

The first task of law students is to banish distractions from the realm of listening. Understand, however, that cultivating sophisticated listening expertise is a lifelong undertaking.

This is an excerpt from the author's forthcoming book, Professor Prufrock's Odyssey