Lawyers Suck at Listening

Oh, don’t act so shocked. You know it’s true.

Even if you’re an exceptionally sensitive lawyer, you’re still stuck dealing with other lawyers. And you’re not exactly a fan of being cut off, condescended to and treated as though your time isn’t as important as theirs.

So how would you feel about paying someone hundreds of dollars an hour to treat you the same way? All while trusting that person to solve one of the biggest problems you’ve ever had.

No wonder attorneys are among the least trusted professionals.

Want clients to view you as an exception to this stereotype? Then it’s time to put on your listening hat.

Act Like You Care

Ideally, you’ll genuinely care about your clients and their problems. Sometimes you’ll struggle to get on board. But in either event, you need to demonstrate to clients (and yourself) that you do, in fact, care.

And guess what. Avoiding eye contact, constantly checking your watch and generally being dismissive won’t convey the “I’m invested in your success” sentiment.

Sure, you’ll need to jot down notes. But look up and make eye contact every so often. (You might even toss out a reassuring smile now and then.) Because when you observe someone as they talk, you pick up on important non-verbal cues. And these non-verbal insights are your guide to navigating the conversation.

Nervous fidgeting. Closed off body language. A look of annoyance (could be about their problem, could be about you). Energetic delivery of a story. Fighting to hold back tears. Shaking with stifled rage. You’ll sense when you need to soften your tone, table a push for more details, offer a comforting look (and pass a box of tissues) or ask a question you hadn’t previously considered.

Clients will sense you’re not like other lawyers. Which is a good thing, by the way.

It’s Not About You

Whether you’re speaking with potential or existing clients, remember they’ve come to you. You’ve already passed their threshold test of being viewed as a respectable lawyer.

Of course, all clients want a legal superstar on their side. But the time for showcasing your legal prowess isn’t when clients are giving you the skinny on their problems. They’re not ready for answers yet. They need to feel heard and understood first. Which means it’s time for you to butt out.

More specifically, stop thinking of what you’re going to say next. If you’re doing that, you’re not truly listening. You’re likely jumping to conclusions about what they’re going to say — instead of waiting to hear (and observe) exactly what’s going on with them. Or you think you already know the solution to their problem and can’t wait to interrupt to show off your expertise.

Maybe you’re terrified they’ll ask you a question for which you don’t know the answer, so you can’t even focus on what they’re saying. The point is to put your energy toward getting into your client’s head, and get out of your own.

Silence Is Your New Best Friend

It’s time to embrace silence as your secret weapon. Yes, awkwardness tends to be the lovechild of silence and lacking social know-how, but it needn’t be. You know how you’re always trying to fill the silence? News flash: You’re not the only one.

So when you let the silence linger, here’s who’s going to keep talking: THEM. And what happens when the clients keep talking? You get a lot more information than if you had interrupted the silence. And it’s usually stuff they wouldn’t normally volunteer and you wouldn’t think to ask about (the juiciest nuggets).

But more importantly, clients feel listened to. And respected. And like you actually care about them and their problems.

While listening seems so basic, it’s not. Just try to think about the last time someone really, truly listened to you without agenda or interruption. It doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, you feel so appreciated you halfway consider kissing the listener.

Not exactly the type of experience often associated with attorneys. Definitely the type of reputation you want to have.

This post was featured as the Daily Dispatch at Attorney at Work.