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Professional Development

How to Be a Better Listener

Jennifer L Meisberger


  • Like all the other skills you practiced and polished while becoming a lawyer, you can also improve your listening skills.
  • Listening is an essential skill to meet the needs of those around us, whether they are colleagues or clients—that's part of being a successful attorney. We must understand the barriers to effective listening and work at being better listeners.
How to Be a Better Listener
Cecilie_Arcurs via iStock

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For some time, I practiced in juvenile court representing child victims, and in my jurisdiction, an assignment representing the accused parent was inevitable. The first time I represented an alleged abuser in a child abuse and neglect case, we met at my office where I heard about chaos, violence, and the children. I learned what it felt like for a family to be invaded, judged, and separated. I was angry. I saw bias and misunderstanding. I yelled. Later I cried. Why was this family torn apart by the system? I vowed to fight and not rest until this family was safely reunited. It never was.

Despite my empathy and the best of intentions for my client and the family, I failed to do something essential in that initial meeting. I missed a crucial step that could have prevented needless court battles and avoided many sleepless nights. I failed to listen. Instead of patiently allowing the client to explain the whole story and determine the goals, I let my emotions fuel personal outrage. When I decided to fight, I actually stopped listening to the client’s story. As a result, it took me years to realize that this client did not really want the family reunited.

Had I listened to the client, rather than my feelings and assumptions, I would have understood the client’s goals in the beginning and been able to advance them more quickly and successfully. I would have developed a better relationship with the client, given better advice to the client, and obtained a better outcome for the client. My experience is just one of countless stories illustrating why lawyers must learn to listen and listen better.

Improve Your Listening Skills

As a lawyer, you likely consider yourself a skilled writer and a persuasive speaker. No matter the practice area, these skills are certainly important. Every lawyer must draft clear, thoughtful arguments for letters, pleadings, and file memoranda. A good lawyer must also be able to articulate those arguments persuasively, whether he is an associate reporting back to a partner, or a litigator making her closing remark to a jury. However, as demonstrated by my experience, these skills are meaningless without the ability to listen carefully.

If you fail to listen properly to the directions of a project at the outset, then all your work will be for nothing. In addition, you may not get another assignment. Likewise, if you are a convincing speaker but do not listen carefully to your client’s account of the facts, your presentation of the case may fail to address critical issues at trial. As a result, you may lose the case and future clients.

Listening is an essential skill to meet the needs of those around us, whether they are colleagues or clients—that is being a successful attorney. We must then understand the barriers to effective listening and work at being better listeners.

Clients Might Distract You

In practice, I discovered several challenges to listening well. First, there are actual, physical distractions. Clients sometimes bring young children to appointments. Clients often bring their cell phones and are constantly interrupted by repeated calls or texts. I’ve seen clients intentionally create distractions to avoid having difficult conversations. (I have seen it all, including a very involved craft project!)

These interruptions can be hugely distracting for both the client and the lawyer. Distractions can hurt the client’s train of thought, annoy the lawyer, and leave you both feeling disconnected and frustrated. These disruptions can occur when meeting with colleagues and others as well.

Sometimes There Are Communication Barriers

Sometimes you will speak with others and won’t immediately recognize communication barriers. The speaker may be pleasant or engaging, but you might find yourself unable to gather sufficient information to understand your client’s needs. I worked with someone once who always arrived on time for appointments and court and was well-dressed and polite, but we could not get past superficial conversation. It wasn’t until I asked the right questions that I learned it wasn’t nerves preventing the client from being more candid, but rather, the client suffered from a traumatic brain injury that made communication extremely difficult.

Clients and others may experience any number of conditions invisible to the naked eye that could affect their ability to communicate with you. People may suffer from addiction, mental health, or medical conditions—any one of which could impact their ability to communicate with you effectively. Our job as lawyers requires us to communicate with a variety of people, not just clients, and these issues may arise in those contexts as well.

Avoid and Eliminate Disruptions

There are many ways to become a better listener. Begin with the obvious and eliminate tangible distractions when possible.

  • Turn your phone to silent or do not disturb when you are meeting with someone. Ask the speaker to do the same.
  • When you or your staff set client appointments, explain in advance the limitations of your meeting space and encourage the client not to bring additional people or projects with them so they can focus on your meeting.
  • If the client must bring a child, suggest the client bring some activities the child can engage in quietly while you have your meeting. Depending upon the age of the child, this might mean a noiseless toy, a coloring book, or a game player with some headphones.
  • Consider, given the nature of your particular practice, whether it is worth investing in a small table and chairs or some activities to keep in your office suite to soothe and entertain young people while meeting with clients.
  • Discuss with staff your policy for when you want to be interrupted during meetings. Calls from judges or senior partners may be emergencies that require intrusion, while newly delivered mail should wait until after your appointment.
  • When meeting away from the office, try to find a quiet location where neither you nor your counterpart will be distracted. This may mean avoiding busy places like coffee shops and courthouse hallways and moving instead to conference rooms or other less-trafficked areas.
  • Remind clients before appointments that the appointment time is set aside just for them. Explain that you need to avoid distractions and offer them your undivided attention to provide them with the best advice.

These suggestions may seem obvious, but the key is not just knowing them but implementing them. It is unrealistic to think you will eliminate all physical distractions, but with some forethought and planning, you can eliminate many. As for the client who wants to knit—just say no.

Your Keen Legal Mind Might Make Listening More Difficult

Consider for a moment the notion that all your training as a law student and as a young lawyer may actually make thorough listening more difficult. Let’s look at what your legal training has taught you about gathering and processing information. As an attorney, you can consume a vast amount of information in a short period. You can issue-spot. You can research and apply the law to facts. You can draw conclusions. You can do all this with professionalism and confidence.

Clearly, you have some great tools at your disposal, but they may also interfere with listening. For example, the habit of taking in large amounts of information in small snippets of time leaves you vulnerable to missing critical pieces. While some situations clearly require you to speed read or hurry a conversation to its conclusion, not all circumstances require such brevity. This means you need to know when this ability is helpful and when it is a hindrance.

Similarly, when spotting issues and drawing conclusions, legal education trains your mind to move ahead of the information and think about what to do with the data. Instead of paying attention to the person in front of you, you are listening to your inner strategist. While this process certainly has a place, it does not belong in every conversation. In addition to losing sight of potentially important facts, you also risk the speaker knowing you are not paying attention and losing confidence in yourself.

Likewise, although not a habit reserved solely for lawyers, multitasking may make you more productive, but it comes with a considerable cost where listening is concerned. Just think about talking on your cell phone while driving—you only have 100 percent of your attention to divide between these two tasks. Add eating a snack or listening to music to the equation, and how much attention do you think is being paid to the speaker? (Or to your driving?!) Certainly, you could try to do all these things at once, but why when the cost is so high? The principle is the same when you are talking with a client on the phone while surfing the Internet or speaking with a client in person while flipping through your file—your ability to do more than one thing at once becomes a liability, not an asset.

Look For and Address Impairments Right Away

When communicating with people who have impairments or disabilities, you may not anticipate barriers to communication. Ask questions gently. Do not ask every person you speak with if he or she is disabled or mentally ill. You are unlikely to get an accurate answer, for one thing. And by asking such a sensitive and poorly phrased question, you will likely damage your ability to build rapport.

One simple way to identify and attend to a physical impairment is simply to describe to a client how to physically get to your meeting place. After your description, ask if the person will need any assistance. This simple technique always offered me a wealth of information when working with clients, including learning that a client is unable to travel to certain locations due to addiction triggers, that a client is unable to climb stairs due to an injury, or that the client is unable to retain step-by-step instructions for some other reason.

This information alone does not mean these clients were unable to communicate effectively. Rather, these pieces of information can be used to make the client more comfortable during your meeting. The information can also help you avoid misreading cues during your meeting, like why your client arrived slightly late or why the client has to stand up so often, etc. This new perspective can enable you to better attend to and hear the client’s story.

In contrast, a person with cognitive challenges, mental health needs, or addiction issues may not be able to accurately perceive the impact of his or her condition, and the condition may not be obvious at first glance. How do you identify these needs and listen effectively to these potentially vulnerable individuals? Again, ask questions gently. If the people in question are your clients, ask if there are documents they would like you to review in advance of your meeting. Oftentimes a client’s handwriting or personal notes on the case can be very informative. In addition, a client’s medical, criminal, or civil records can give you clues about past or current functioning.

Quiet Your Legal Mind

In addition to these external techniques, there are ways you can be a better listener.

  1. Make time to truly listen. When possible, make sure you schedule enough time for a meeting. Scheduling too little time does your speaker a disservice and sets you up to cherry-pick information rather than hear it in its entirety.
  2. Get the whole picture before forming an opinion. Don’t worry about organizing the information into a case or formulating a closing too soon. Instead, allow yourself to take in the facts. Arrange the facts later. Also, don’t allow your note-taking to steal your focus on what is being said.
  3. Single-task. That’s right, do only one thing at a time. This may be the most difficult part, but focusing on the task at hand—getting information from one source at a time—is crucial. Review the file in advance, put away your phone, and concentrate on the speaker.
  4. Be mindful. If you notice your mind has wandered or you’ve lost track of what is being said, bring yourself back into the conversation.
  5. It’s OK to care. Be kind. When appropriate, offer encouragement, pause, and get the speaker a tissue. Even if you are not able to elicit all the necessary facts in the initial consultation, the time you take to listen, allow people to be heard, and connect with them is invaluable.

Avoid Making Judgments Too Soon and Jumping Ahead

One of the biggest challenges of listening is avoiding judgment. Judgment includes jumping ahead and reaching a premature conclusion. It also includes inserting your own personal ideas into the equation when identifying goals. This is one of the mistakes I made early on when listening to my client. I made a personal judgment about what I heard and then moved full-steam ahead. Had I waited and listened without judgment, I would have heard a client who understood the challenges of parenting and knew the children would be well cared for in an alternate arrangement. Instead, I assumed families always need to stay together, which may not have been the case.

It is hard to listen to others without judgment, and yet it is perhaps the most important thing you will do as a lawyer. Your clients need good advice, and you can only give that by reserving judgment and listening well.

There are many ways to avoid common problems that interfere with listening. Still, every solution starts with knowing the potential obstacles, hidden or obvious, and working to be a better listener. Hopefully, you’ve been “listening,” and this article will help.