Law in Contemporary Society

The Law Needs Listeners

-- By RichardWhite - 16 Feb 2023

Is Anyone Listening?

“Kill the bill, kill the bill!” I could hear the chorus of voices growing louder from down the hall. It was July of 2017 and a muggy afternoon in the Hart Senate Office Building, and everyone watched in anticipation of the Senate Trumpcare vote in two weeks. As lowest rank in the office—the sophomore college intern—I was given the task of locking the office doors to keep the peaceful demonstrators out. Sympathetic to the concerns of those who approached, I still wondered what they really hoped to achieve by chanting.

As I met eyes with the protestors from the other side of the locked glass doors, I nervously turned around to ask for instruction. Silence. The front office was completely empty, and only I remained. On my subway ride home that evening, I thought back to the hundreds of constituent phone calls I had taken that week for the Senator, imploring considerations and describing personal health concerns. I had submitted detailed notes for each call, but I questioned whether they were actually read. I began to realize that having one’s voice heard necessitates somebody listening, and these people were desperate to be heard.

Listening in Law School

Years later, as an advocate-in-training, I often find myself focusing on the work that is done through expression—how to communicate effectively in debate or conversation. Indeed, it seems a lion’s share of law school is devoted to the pursuit of vocalization: cold calls that test your ability to speak on your feet or exams wherein strong arguments are rewarded.

I do not overlook the art of expression as a vital part of lawyering, and that worthy goals cannot be achieved without it. However, I believe that we often neglect an even more fundamental competence, listening, and listening well. Whatever one’s legal objective may be, whether social change or excellent client service, do not discount this.

S0 How do We Listen? Take the “A” Train.

Good listening requires more than just sitting in a room together and hearing words (although some do not even make it that far). It requires the growth of personal attributes and concrete action.

If Duke Ellington’s genius came from playing what he heard on the street corner, let us take to the streets then. Behind the turnstiles of the law school, we are surrounded by lawyers and future-lawyers. The environment is ripe for law-talk, but most of our future clients will not be lawyers. We can learn to listen more productively by venturing out and seeking our own street corners from which the people are speaking. Consider the spheres of activity relevant in your own life and become attuned to them. For me, this might include the church I attend on Sundays or the barbershop I visit every month. In quiet observation of the world and its controversies, what is left to do but listen? While I mean this in a literal and physical sense, it is not exclusive—the Wiki’s “On the Radar” section can be accessed at any time.

We have been encouraged to find clients for good reason, and such a relationship seems inextricably linked to the lawyer’s role as a listener. One cannot expect to go about helping to solve the problem of another without a proper understanding of the problem itself, and such an understanding comes in part from an appreciation of the client within their frame of reference, hearing them. Developing this empathy is a significant step to productive listening and effective lawyering. As I think back t0 the senate healthcare activists, I see in them individuals who needed their problems addressed, jazz tunes asking to be played.

Empathetic listening imbues work with meaning, and engaging with the human concerns behind a legal problem makes solving the problem all the more satisfying. In many instances, good listening transpires as part of an ongoing relationship where building rapport through listening facilitates the ability to have more candid—better—conversations in the future.


There are several things that can get in the way of good listening. At times, one’s own proficiency may work to drown out the voice of another. In marketing our “expertise” on a topic, we acknowledge the hard time and effort we have put into our craft and perhaps justify the (oftentimes exorbitant) fees we charge for our services. But even as a first-year law student, I have felt an inclination to let this go to my head. Ego can turn the process of listening solely into a waiting period, a formality to acknowledge before getting your opportunity to speak. As Judge Day said, “If you know how to talk, you know how to listen … It’s those who don’t listen to what they are saying who are the most insufferable…” Heeding these words, it seems that radical self-awareness can provide an antidote to getting over the love of our own voices. On an individual level, this means learning to read a room, being attune to moments when another’s voice needs lifting. Sensitivity to historical and contemporary social inequalities may inform this effort. At other times, bias and pre-judgement hinder otherwise good-faith efforts to hear objectively. A bit of humility may go a long way in ameliorating such obstructions.

A Path Forward

Better listening will improve relationships, both professional and personal, and can be a powerful tool for social and legal change. But to do so, we must open the door and take a careful look at the world and within ourselves. On July 27, 2017, Trumpcare failed by one vote. Perhaps an unlocked door and an open ear made the difference.

You needed to take more seriously my advice to cut hard. This draft is still blowsy as the first was. It can be hard to "kill our darlings" when we edit our own work, but that's a crucial part of training our writing, shaping it to the purpose, as lawyers' words must be.

How to learn better listening is still undiscussed, even though it is really your subject. Awareness, evaluation, memory, recording—all the critical components of lawyers' listening are open to your inquiry. Empathy can be crucial to awareness, though not for all forms of good listening, and not always. There was more you might have made of that. All the substantive progress demands space, however, which was why the hard edit was so necessary.

Hi Richard! I found your Obstructions section especially interesting. I have noticed that, as someone who went to an undergraduate institution that was very political (due in some part to student self-selection based on its being in DC), those who had worked on certain issues in the past were least receptive to alternative viewpoints. I made an effort to take small seminars whenever possible, as I felt they supplemented the larger required lectures in the business program well, and I enjoyed them best. That said, as someone who leans left politically myself, I was frustrated when a student on either side refused to make a good-faith effort to respond to another's argument in a class discussion. While bona fide personal attacks were rare, they did happen on occasion, which was a disappointment for someone looking for a well-thought-out discussion both for variety and interest's sake. I was especially disappointed when classmates with an internship or other relevant experience regarding the topic of discussion resorted to them rather than drawing on their background to respond. This could also go too far in the other direction, though, when people with hands-on experience refused to believe that their opinion and lived perspective was not the only one worth talking about. I feel improvements in listening could have helped address both extremes, and I enjoyed reading your essay.


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r5 - 24 May 2023 - 21:43:53 - MichaelPari
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