Lawyers Suck at Listening

By | Dec.03.14 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice, New Lawyers, Skills


Oh, don’t act so shocked. You know it’s true. Even if you’re an exceptionally sensitive lawyer, you’re still stuck dealing with other lawyers. And you’re not exactly a fan of being cut off, condescended to and treated as though your time isn’t as important as theirs. So how would you feel about paying someone hundreds of dollars an hour to treat you the same way? All while trusting that person to solve one of the biggest problems you’ve ever had.

No wonder attorneys are among the least trusted professionals.

Want clients to view you as an exception to this stereotype? Then it’s time to put on your listening hat.

Act Like You Care

Ideally, you’ll genuinely care about your clients and their problems. Sometimes you’ll struggle to get on board. But in either event, you need to demonstrate to clients (and yourself) that you do, in fact, care.

And guess what. Avoiding eye contact, constantly checking your watch and generally being dismissive won’t convey the “I’m invested in your success” sentiment.

Sure, you’ll need to jot down notes. But look up and make eye contact every so often. (You might even toss out a reassuring smile now and then.) Because when you observe someone as they talk, you pick up on important non-verbal cues. And these non-verbal insights are your guide to navigating the conversation.

Nervous fidgeting. Closed off body language. A look of annoyance (could be about their problem, could be about you). Energetic delivery of a story. Fighting to hold back tears. Shaking with stifled rage. You’ll sense when you need to soften your tone, table a push for more details, offer a comforting look (and pass a box of tissues) or ask a question you hadn’t previously considered.

Clients will sense you’re not like other lawyers. Which is a good thing, by the way.

It’s Not About You

Whether you’re speaking with potential or existing clients, remember they’ve come to you. You’ve already passed their threshold test of being viewed as a respectable lawyer.

Of course, all clients want a legal superstar on their side. But the time for showcasing your legal prowess isn’t when clients are giving you the skinny on their problems. They’re not ready for answers yet. They need to feel heard and understood first. Which means it’s time for you to butt out.

More specifically, stop thinking of what you’re going to say next. If you’re doing that, you’re not truly listening. You’re likely jumping to conclusions about what they’re going to say — instead of waiting to hear (and observe) exactly what’s going on with them. Or you think you already know the solution to their problem and can’t wait to interrupt to show off your expertise.

Maybe you’re terrified they’ll ask you a question for which you don’t know the answer, so you can’t even focus on what they’re saying. The point is to put your energy toward getting into your client’s head, and get out of your own.

Silence Is Your New Best Friend

It’s time to embrace silence as your secret weapon. Yes, awkwardness tends to be the lovechild of silence and lacking social know-how, but it needn’t be. You know how you’re always trying to fill the silence? News flash: You’re not the only one.

So when you let the silence linger, here’s who’s going to keep talking: THEM. And what happens when the clients keep talking? You get a lot more information than if you had interrupted the silence. And it’s usually stuff they wouldn’t normally volunteer and you wouldn’t think to ask about (the juiciest nuggets).

But more importantly, clients feel listened to. And respected. And like you actually care about them and their problems.

While listening seems so basic, it’s not. Just try to think about the last time someone really, truly listened to you without agenda or interruption. It doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, you feel so appreciated you halfway consider kissing the listener.

Not exactly the type of experience often associated with attorneys. Definitely the type of reputation you want to have.

Annie Little is a trained life coach, former practicing attorney and the founder of JD Nation, where she helps lawyers regain control of their careers, beat burnout and start enjoying their lives again. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Don’t be shy; say hi!

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6 Responses to “Lawyers Suck at Listening”

  1. Stan
    3 December 2014 at 10:46 am #

    Nothing is 100% black or white. Some clients ramble, and others think they know better than the lawyer which facts are important (usually they are wrong and this becomes a time waster). The same clients who may object to paying fees for not being listened to will inevitably think they are being overcharged when a task takes more attorney time than they expect.

    As law students we made the painful transition from laymen unable to “state the facts and holding of the case” to attorneys who knew what to look for and how to describe it. Our clients are mostly people who are not trained in this skill and who therefore need our help to do this efficiently.

    It’s obviously important to listen to clients, but it’s also important to be proactive and develop important facts that might otherwise get lost in a client’s narrative. We are paid to solve our clients’ legal problems, not to serve as therapists.

    My wife is a therapist. She’s trained to listen and hates when people interrupt. But she would suck at solving people’s legal problems.

  2. Annie Little
    3 December 2014 at 9:22 pm #

    Stan, totally agree with you that nothing is 100% black or white. (Kinda like your generalization that anyone who is a good listener is incapable of also solving legal problems…yikes.)

    Because nothing is ever so cut and dried, we need to listen to what clients are telling us–verbally and non-verbally–rather than assume they’re not providing us with meaningful information. Just because our clients aren’t legally trained doesn’t mean they can’t relay the facts of their stories without being interrupted by attorneys who “know better”.

    Perhaps I should have clarified in my post that these tactics are best emphasized at the beginning of the attorney-client relationship, when you’re establishing your trustworthiness. Once they trust you, they’ll take far less offense (if any) to your polite interruptions.

    Plus, when we truly listen we gain the trust of our clients, so that when we do dispense with legal advice (which obviously is what we’re paid to do) they are more likely to heed it. If they don’t trust us or feel heard by us, they may disregard our advice because we “don’t know the whole story” or “don’t get them”. If your clients are anything like the ones most attorneys describe, I’m sure you’ve encountered this.

    Do we need to guide clients and ask probing questions and interrupt when they get off topic? Of course! My point is that we can do so in a way that respects each client, fosters feelings of trust and makes our jobs as attorneys a little less antagonistic.

  3. Stan
    4 December 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    I mostly agree with your reply, and frankly didn’t totally disagree with your original post. I just mostly took umbrage at the title, perhaps because my therapist-wife is always telling me to listen more and talk less.

    While I’ve come to be sympathetic to her viewpoint in social settings, I don’t think her viewpoint applies as strongly to my interactions with clients. Fortunately my clients usually appreciate my directness and still feel lots of empathy from me.

    I did not say or mean that good listeners make bad problem solvers. I just meant that people like therapists — and certainly my wife — do not instantly become good problem solvers by listening more and talking less. Listening is a tool that lawyers can and should use better, and it can produce more and better information. But it doesn’t magically make a lawyer smarter or more creative.

  4. Virginia Nicols
    7 December 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Good listening doesn’t mean undisciplined listening. It can be enhanced if you have a list of bullet points to help guide the conversation . . .And you can introduce the fact that you use an “agenda” right at the beginning of the relationship. I believe people feel more comfortable when they think somebody knows where the conversation is headed. I know I do!

  5. Annie Little
    8 December 2014 at 9:35 pm #

    Virginia, excellent point! Clients absolutely expect the lawyer to manage the conversation and sharing your “agenda” with them at the beginning of your meeting would be a fantastic way to begin building your credibility and their trust.