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Be a Listening Lawyer

Special to the News Columns

'To be a listening lawyer is to prioritize the client's needs above our own, as we cannot truly understand their goals without giving them our full attention'

Jim Vickaryous

Jim Vickaryous

Abraham Lincoln once said, “When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him and what he is going to say.” These words encapsulate a fundamental truth for lawyers — the power of listening. In a profession where advocacy and representation are paramount, being an active listener is a transformative force that can elevate one’s practice to new heights.

Listening to something you don’t want to hear is one of the hardest things a human being can do. It’s even harder for lawyers. It is unnatural to sit and listen to ideas and opinions that we disagree with. It is easy to tune out and think about all of your priorities or prepare what you want to say next. It is even harder to listen intently to someone who you disdain. However, you may dislike an idea, a position, a person, it is to your benefit to listen and understand what they are saying. After all, you can’t fully combat what you don’t like if you don’t fully understand the opposition.

For lawyers, the challenge lies in the paradox of our training. We are honed to be zealous advocates, articulate in making arguments, and expectant that our words will be heard and respected. However, the reality is that most people, including ourselves, are often not truly listening. This oversight is a missed opportunity, for when others listen to our legal discourse, they grant us a significant privilege. Active listening, therefore, is a deliberate act, requiring the intentional commitment to create mental space for another person’s words.

To actively listen, we must liberate our minds from the distractions that often cloud our attention. This means silencing the incessant chatter of the next question we want to ask, the visual scrutiny of the person speaking, and the distraction of incoming texts. Active listening necessitates putting down the pen, ceasing note taking, and focusing on the speaker’s tone of voice and facial expressions. It demands patience and concentration, virtues that are essential in our profession. John D. Rockefeller, known for being a keen listener and man of few words, was heard often repeating an old poem: “A wise old owl sat on an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we be more like that wise old bird?”

When we took the Oath of Attorney, pledging to “maintain the confidence and preserve inviolate the secrets” of our clients, we implicitly committed to active listening. After all, how can you know your client’s secrets if you didn’t listen to them in the first place. To be a listening lawyer is to prioritize the client’s needs above our own, as we cannot truly understand their goals without giving them our full attention.

A listening lawyer is not one who capitulates or remains silent. Instead, they actively listen to opposing counsel to discern the root of disagreements. Initiating an argument by addressing the concerns of the other side showcases a profound understanding of opposing viewpoints. This intellectual discipline not only deflates the opposition’s argument but also fortifies the credibility of our own stance when presenting our client’s case. By starting with points that resonate with our audience, we cultivate willing listeners who are more receptive when we introduce our compelling arguments.

The true challenge of the art of listening lies in turning that skill inward. Listening to ourselves, to our instincts, is often the most overlooked aspect of effective communication. The simplicity of our initial inclinations is frequently talked away, overshadowed by the complexities we introduce. The gut feeling that often indicates the best course of action is ignored or overridden by a cascade of unnecessary dialogue. To be a successful listening lawyer, one must actively listen not only to others but also to the inner voice that guides us.

Embracing the ethos of a listening lawyer is not merely a professional strategy; it is a commitment to a higher standard of legal practice. Beyond the courtroom or negotiation table, the essence of active listening extends to the intricate tapestry of relationships within the legal community. As lawyers, we operate within a network of diverse professionals — from paralegals and court personnel to fellow attorneys. The ability to genuinely hear and understand the perspectives of others enriches these relationships, fostering collaboration, and a more harmonious professional environment.

In the dynamic landscape of law, where change is constant and precedents evolve, the listening lawyer is better equipped to adapt. The legal profession demands continual learning, and by actively engaging with the insights and experiences of colleagues, we open ourselves to a wealth of knowledge. A culture of listening within the legal community not only elevates individual practices but also contributes to the collective growth and advancement of the field.

The concept of a listening lawyer extends beyond the boundaries of legal interactions. It transcends the courtroom and office, manifesting itself in the community and society at large. Lawyers, as influential members of their communities, have the power to effect positive change. By actively listening to the concerns and needs of the community, lawyers can identify opportunities for pro bono work, outreach, and advocacy, thereby fulfilling a broader social responsibility.

Moreover, the art of listening is pivotal in building relationships with everyone around you. After all, if you don’t listen, why should they listen to you? By attentively considering the perspectives of individuals from various backgrounds and experiences, lawyers create trust in those that they are communicating with. This deep understanding of others through intensive listening strengthens the profession and ensures that the legal system serves a multifaceted and evolving society equitably.  When others know we are listening, they will feel acknowledged and will share more with you.

The challenge for lawyers, then, is to not only be adept listeners within the confines of legal proceedings, but to embody the spirit of listening in all facets of their professional and personal lives. It requires a commitment to continuous improvement, an openness to diverse viewpoints, and a recognition that every interaction is an opportunity to learn.

In essence, being a listening lawyer is a lifelong journey — a commitment to growth, understanding, and positive impact. As we navigate the intricacies of the legal profession, let us not only resolve to be listening lawyers within the courtroom but champions of active listening in every aspect of our professional and community engagements. By doing so, we contribute to a legal landscape that thrives on collaboration, empathy, and continuous improvement, thereby shaping a legacy of excellence in the noble pursuit of justice. As with the wise old owl, the less we talk, the more we hear. Let’s all resolve to be listening lawyers.

Jim Vickaryous is the managing partner of the Vickaryous Law Firm in Lake Mary and represents the 18th Circuit on The Florida Bar Board of Governors. 

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