A law professor once said that starting law school is like learning Chinese by being dropped from an airplane into a community where only Chinese is spoken. (Thank you, UNLV Professor Terrill Pollman for this analogy.)
It can be difficult to listen when you are just getting started with legal concepts and language. But effective listening in the law school classroom is important to a successful law-school experience.
How can law students prepare to listen effectively? Here are some ideas.
- Acclimate to the pace of a law school class.
Incoming law students could search for a few lectures on YouTube and sample what they really sound like. The Socratic method may be a new experience. Class can move slowly or very, very fast—or probably, a mix of both.
- Start to develop a note-taking method.
It is difficult to decide how to take notes in a law-school class before you’ve actually attended one. Be ready to adjust after a few weeks. Lisa Needham published a post in the Lawyerist about the famous Cornell note-taking method, which she described as a way of “hacking chaos.” On a more specific note, I guest-blogged about one strategy, #professorsays, at The Girl’s Guide to Law School.
You will also have a decision to make about whether to take notes on a laptop or on paper. Google “notetaking on laptop” for an evolving body of research suggesting you may be better off with pen and paper.
- Read before class to strengthen your listening listening on a particular case.
Why do professors assign reading before class at all? Reading before class makes a student more effective as a listener in class for two reasons:
- The reading gives context, so that class makes more sense.
- The reading (ideally) generates some curiosity, so that students are engaged with what the professor says about the reading.
- Stay engaged in class
In “What Every Law Student Needs to Know,” Tracy George and Suzanna Sherry address the role of engaged listening in the classroom:
Whatever form your classes take, be an active participant. Listen critically to the professor and your classmates. Do you agree with what is said? Can you answer the questions that are asked? Do not take verbatim notes. Trying to type everything that’s said (or even everything the professor says) will prevent you from thinking while in class, and you will miss a crucial part of the classroom experience.
Staying engaged will help you understand whether you are confused. If you feel confusion setting in, ask questions after class or to the professor’s office hours or make an appointment. Explain as clearly as you can what you think you understand and where you have questions or confusion. This is good practice for externships and conversations with supervisors as well.
- Listen to real lawyering experiences.
For a multimedia experience, check out oral argument audio on oyez.org. Then read the opinion to see how the spoken arguments may have affected the Court’s final written decision. I would suggest the audio arguments in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. as an entertaining and educational opportunity. (Here’s the Supreme Court’s written opinion.)
For an example that’s not litigation-oriented, here is a sample mediation video. It shows how the mediation process can be used to help people resolve a dispute without a court or other formal tribunal.
- Listen to people.
After law school, lawyers’ listening is very different from the classroom experience. Most lawyers have many conversations and phone calls. Effective lawyers demonstrate a mix of strong hard skills (knowledge of the law) and soft skills (i.e. “people skills”). To build the soft skills, volunteer to take an oral history for an archive project. Interview an older relative about their story. Tutor a kid one-on-one. Talk with a mentor about law practice.
It’s not exactly sipping piña coladas and having “me” time by the beach. But spending time in conversations like this will build listening skills. And listening to real people with empathy may even build up resilience and motivation—qualities that will definitely be needed throughout the 1L year and beyond.
This guest post is adopted from “Law-school prep for listening skills,” posted at Listen Like a Lawyer, Jennifer Murphy Romig’s blog focusing on listening skills for lawyers, law students, and all legal professionals.