The art of listening

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When a client visits attorney John Rowe’s law office, Rowe’s first priority is to figure out what the client wants. That may sound like a simple task, but sometimes he’s got to chip away at the surface to discover the real reason someone needs his assistance.

“Customarily, I’ll ask them what their goals are, what’s on their mind,” he said. “And then we can ask questions based on that to help zero-in more accurately on that which is their underlying concern, which may be what they expressed or it may be something else.”

Rowe and like-minded attorneys say that in order to serve clients effectively, they have to devote their full attention to what their clients say and how they’re saying it. Word choice, intonation and subtle changes in body language may sometimes reveal a truth that an inattentive attorney may miss. And lawyers who understand the distinction between hearing and listening may have an advantage over those who don’t.

Being respectful

Mark Torma, a lawyer with South Bend’s Drendall Law Office, said that he has learned through discussions with other lawyers that people in his profession may not necessarily be putting the client’s needs first.

“All too often, it’s easier to figure out what’s important to you – what’s more profitable, what’s more interesting,” he said.

Torma recently became the interim executive director of the Volunteer Lawyer Network, based in St. Joseph County. He said many pro bono clients, based on their lack of experience interacting with lawyers, may not be able to express the problems they’re trying to solve. But if he doesn’t let them speak freely, the attorney-client relationship may be off to a rocky start.

“If you cut them short, don’t give them time to breathe and tell their story, generally you don’t get as much cooperation from them,” Torma said. “The important thing to do is to pay attention to the value the client gives each of the cases, and that’s not easy to do.”

Rowe shares a similar philosophy.

“What the people are saying and what they mean likely are not the same,” Rowe said. “And unless I listen appropriately and do my best to determine not only what they are saying but what they mean, then my ability to react adequately – to teach or advise depending upon the need – wastes my time and their money,” he said.

Rowe’s office is in Linton, a town of less than 6,000 people, about 30 miles southeast of Terre Haute, and he thinks that may give him an advantage in reading his clients.

“I am very blessed in that my practice is made up of a lot of folks in whose culture I’ve grown up. That is, it’s a rural, agricultural mining community. When they say something, that elicits all sorts of triggers,” he said. “So I think when we use our vocabulary, our body language, it gives me a leg up on understanding what they’re really saying.”

Watching for cues

Skilled communicators understand that a person’s body language may reveal much more than the spoken word. But if you’re not watching for those cues, you may be missing out on important information.

Barnes & Thornburg litigator Jimmie McMillian has witnessed this behavior in depositions.

“I think part of listening is looking at body language, knowing when it seems like the witness seems like they want to provide a little bit more,” McMillian said. “Sometimes, they’ll look down like they’re thinking – and if you’re not looking at them, you don’t realize that they’re actually thinking about whether they should say the next thing.”

In the public setting of a courtroom, visual cues can help an attorney understand what a witness may be withholding, Torma explained.

“I often think that in the courtroom specifically, for both the lawyers and the clients who are often speaking as witnesses, what’s even more important than listening is watching because everyone is very much aware that they are being recorded,” Torma said. “So it’s actually more important to pay attention to what they do when they’re not talking. It’s fairly nerve-wracking for people, so they take some time to process what they’re going to say.”

Going off-script

McMillian said one challenge in questioning people is that they don’t always react as expected. You may have a long list of questions, neatly arranged in the order you prefer to ask them. But making the most of an interview requires flexibility.

“Sometimes it’s hard to bear off that outline and ask good follow-up questions, as opposed to being locked to the outline and being more focused on your next question than the witness’ answer,” he said.

St. Joseph Superior Judge Jenny Pitts Manier has seen in her courtroom examples of both artful questioning and amateur interrogation. In a recent trial, one attorney would question a witness, listen carefully to the response and then follow up with a question that showed he was paying attention.

“It seemed to be the fruit of attentive listening and very useful trial technique – not for just that person’s client, but also the jury,” she said.

In the same case, the opposing counsel asked essentially the same questions, as if he had not been paying attention.

“If one were reading a jury, one might be able to discern a bit of tedium on the part of the jury,” Manier said.

Alienating a jury may not be the best trial tactic, and sometimes it begins early on, before the jury has been chosen.

“I’ve experienced that many years ago in jury selection, where the counsel rising to do voir dire, it was as if he had been in another building,” she said. That attorney, she recalled, had obviously not listened to the questions that had already been asked of the jury pool.

Manier said that “when you call people off the streets out of their lives and ask them to suspend their lives for this process,” the least attorneys can do is be respectful and attentive and not waste jurors’ time by asking them to answer the same questions again and again.

McMillian McMillian

Narrowing your focus

To be attentive – to be in the moment – attorneys can’t engage in multitasking.

“It’s an art to be patient,” McMillian said. “I also think part of being a good listener is being able to clear out all of the other stuff that we as lawyers have cluttering our minds. There’s kind of this pressure today to get onto the next case, the next thing, the next matter, be efficient. There’s this pressure to move extremely fast all the time. And to be a good listener, sometimes you have to clear all of that out. For the next 10 minutes, an hour, whatever it takes, I’m going to look and think and focus solely on you.”•


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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues