Pop culture has taught us to see attorneys as powerful advocates who make big stands in courtrooms. Fictional attorneys usually orate and persuade. While those are essential skills, there’s another crucial aspect to law we don’t see on our TV screens: knowing how to listen.
Attorneys spend years in school and years more proving their competency. So, we often find ourselves eager to demonstrate everything we know. But we learn the most about our clients and their cases when we close our mouths and stop waiting for our turn to talk. Further, our mastery of legal issues is only one of the reasons people hire an attorney. What most people want is an interface between themselves and the law.
“Being a good lawyer isn’t about who can argue the best; it’s about who can better create interpersonal relationships.”
– Nate Riordan, Franchise and Bankruptcy Attorney
In other words, being a good lawyer isn’t about who can argue the best; it’s about who can create the best interpersonal relationships. The law in fiction is typically about pummeling an opponent into submission. But most real-life cases rest on negotiation.
When I take on a new case, I find that my client and the opposing side agree on about 90% of the issues at stake. We both want to make a deal happen and see eye-to-eye on most of the terms and conditions of doing business. That remaining 10% is critical but will only prevent you from reaching your goal if you look at it that way. Disagreements are an opportunity to craft a solution, but to collaborate, you must understand the other side’s objectives.
Perhaps my greatest strength as an attorney is my ability to persuade opposing counsel to view our issues as shared. Listening to what they have to say is the most crucial ingredient to accomplishing that feat. People will tell you what issues matter most to them, and when somebody feels heard, it’s much easier to build trust and come to a mutual agreement.
The same is true in a courtroom. During my litigation days, I was fascinated by how often the judge told the counsel how to win their cases. When arguing a motion, the judge’s questions give you great insight into what they’re thinking. Listening to them instead of preparing what you’ll say next gives you an indication of what issues are giving them pause and which arguments will win them over.
Finally, any attorney worth their salt must listen to their clients. We don’t know the best path forward until we know what they hope to achieve. It’s also essential to treat the client holistically. They come to my office because they don’t know how to resolve a problem themselves, meaning they don’t necessarily understand the heart of the situation. I must ask questions and hear people out to get to the root issue plaguing them. It’s not always what they think.
I love the sound of my own voice as much as any other attorney, but some of the best lawyering I’ve ever done occurred when I wasn’t saying a word. Listening through every stage of the process allows me to build relationships and understanding between parties that need to come to an agreement. And that makes me a better advocate for my clients.