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Listen Up

by Will Graebe |

In the hope that I might improve myself and help another lawyer suffering from my same affliction, I want to confess a character defect. I am not a good listener. For as long as I can remember, I have been a poor listener. I don’t think that I’m an inconsiderate or unkind person. I want to be a good listener, but it’s really hard. I have so many things I want to tell people. I have solutions to their problems. I have nuggets of wisdom to impart to them. I need to save them from their misguided beliefs. And I am passionate about certain things and want them to feel that same sense of passion.

I have come to realize that all my “good intentions” have not served me, or others, well. It has been detrimental to my personal relationships and interfered with professional relationships. And maybe most significantly, I have missed numerous opportunities to learn from others by taking the time to listen.

In my defense, I was never taught to be a good listener. I grew up in a family that valued being right and being heard. Listening was not considered a strength.  Law school was no different. I don’t recall a professor ever emphasizing the importance of listening. I was trained to win and find solutions for clients.

I suspect that my story is not all that different from many lawyers. Most lawyers I know are not great listeners. I frequently see this when talking to lawyers who have made mistakes. I was recently on a telephone call trying to help a lawyer avoid making a bad situation worse. The lawyer had made a mistake on a client’s matter and now had a conflict of interest in his continued representation. I was trying to tell the lawyer why he needed to withdraw and how he should convey this to the client. The lawyer would not stop talking long enough to listen to what I was trying to communicate. Ultimately, I followed up the conversation with a letter to make sure the lawyer understood what he needed to do. I suspect that this lawyer communicates with his clients the same way that he handled his telephone call with me.

Lawyers who are poor listeners are at increased risk of malpractice claims and grievances. Good listening is essential to gather the information needed to effectively represent a client. Without adequate information, deadlines can be missed, wrong parties can be named, actions can be taken on behalf of the client that are inconsistent with the client’s wishes, and a whole host of other errors can be made.

Poor listening can also negatively impact client relationships and the firm’s reputation. Clients come to lawyers with a story to tell. They want to be heard. If they don’t feel heard, they will become disgruntled and might even post a negative review or find another lawyer.

So, if you’re like me and want to become a better listener, what can you do? Psychologists, consultants, coaches, and numerous authors offer all kinds of suggestions for improved listening. Some are obvious.

  • Don’t interrupt someone when they are talking.
  • Give people sufficient time to say what they need to say.
  • When there is a pause, don’t feel the need to fill the pause with your own words. Sometimes the silence can be followed by the delivery of the most important information.
  • Let the person know you are listening by your body posture and gestures.
  • Remove interruptions and distractions.
  • Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what the person is saying.
  • Repeat and confirm to the person what you think they have told you.

These are great tips, but I would suggest that you will only be able to do these things if you can let go of your ego. Lawyers tend to have very strong egos that can sometimes serve clients well. But, when it comes to listening, the ego must be put on the shelf. When we are in listening mode, this is not the time to impress a client with how smart we are. It’s not the time to prove to the other person that you are right. It is a time to gather information and learn. I understand that this is a tall order. We are trained to talk.

If you really want to be the most effective lawyer, though, you need to learn how to let the ego go long enough to actually hear what another person is saying. There will be plenty of time later for you to impress the client with your superior legal skills. In fact, you will be more likely to impress your client and opposing parties and counsel when you have learned how to be a good listener.

If you are wondering what this might look like, think about a lawyer that you know and respect who doesn’t feel the need to always speak. These are the lawyers who are able to sit quietly and take in the comments of everyone else in the room and then offer the wisest insight of all. We have a lawyer on our Board who does this. She exercises extraordinary restraint and wisdom when participating in meetings. When she speaks, people listen. When I grow up, I want to be that kind of lawyer.

About the Author

Will Graebe

Will Graebe came to Lawyers Mutual in 1998 as claims counsel. In 2009, Will became the Vice President of the Claims Department and served in that role until 2019. After a two-year sabbatical, Will returned to Lawyers Mutual as claims counsel and relationship manager. In his role as claims counsel, Will focuses primarily on claims related to estates and trusts, business transactions and real estate matters. Will received his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Stetson University. Prior to joining Lawyers Mutual, will worked in private practice with the law firm of Pinna, Johnston & Burwell.  

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