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Listen More, Talk Less

By Donna Mallard | Apr. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2015

Listen More, Talk Less

Good listening skills can be more valuable than good talking skills -- even for lawyers.

Whenever I find myself contemplating the long list of things I need to do to become a better lawyer, one item always seems to be at the top: I need to listen better. Over time, I've come to realize that good listening skills actually are rarer and more valuable than good talking skills-even for lawyers.

Eloquence Is Overrated

Lawyers, as we all know, are generally pretty talkative. It can be a struggle to make yourself heard in many situations when lawyers gather. In those settings, good listening skills don't always seem relevant. (We've all been in a law school classroom with 95 people where 4 did all the talking and everyone else sat around and listened. Well, full disclosure: I was usually one of the 4.) Our profession is built around the analysis and deployment of words; being articulate is an important part of being a good lawyer because we need verbal facility to explain issues to our clients and to negotiate and argue on their behalf.

Still, we tend to overstate the importance of being a good talker in getting the right outcomes for our clients. Most legal matters are resolved through agreement, rather than through victory by one side over the other. A corollary of this principle is that lawyers typically get the best outcome for their clients by helping both sides see where the best solution lies-not by outsmarting the opposition.

Resist the Urge

When I'm patient enough to listen first and talk second, it's amazing how much more productive my conversations become. Too often, a conversation with a lawyer ends up feeling like a debate-and I don't mean a leisurely, meditative, Lincoln v. Douglas--type affair; I'm thinking of one of those scary, speed-talking contests among high school debaters, where the only objective seems to be to make as many points as you can as fast as you can.

A conversation shouldn't be a competition or a race. It should involve listening to other people's points and responding to them, as well as making your own. You'd think that adopting that approach would be pretty simple. But at least in my case, I've found it takes work.

I remember working on a contract between two companies. The one I represented was a subsidiary of a larger company, and I expected the other company to ask for a guarantee from my client's parent company, which I knew the parent didn't want to give. We scheduled a face-to-face meeting with the other company and its counsel. To prepare, I spent hours crafting argument upon argument for why a guarantee wasn't necessary, was unreasonable, and would actually be a terrible thing for the other side; you get the idea. But when the time came, my opposing counsel kicked off the negotiations with a laundry list of his client's demands that didn't even include the guarantee.

As it turned out, the best tactic for achieving my client's objectives was to keep my mouth shut. I'd like to say I planned this sequence of events, but it was just dumb luck. In fact, the funniest (saddest?) part of the whole experience was how difficult I found it to keep quiet, even after I'd gotten what I wanted. For the rest of the meeting, I felt a powerful urge to let everyone know why the other side shouldn't get a guarantee.

Give Up Control

One of the toughest things about a listen-first-talk-second policy is that you have less control over the conversation and the direction it takes. You may not be able to make all the points you planned. Or the conversation could shift to a subject you can't address.

My approach to practicing law has always been predicated on using preparation and analytical rigor to eliminate uncertainty to the greatest extent possible. So, surrendering control in the manner required to truly be a good listener doesn't come naturally to me. But it's often the only way to find the best solution to the kinds of problems I'm asked to solve.

No matter how smart you are, the key to identifying the best solution to a legal matter is understanding the real problem you're trying to solve-not the technical, legal problem, but the problem as the client experiences it. What constraint or burden is being placed on the client's business? Why is it significant? The only way to answer these questions is to ask the client and listen to the answer. Most clients are quite happy to explain things if you seem genuinely interested. And demonstrating a real desire to understand a client's business in depth and see things as they do will pay dividends in confidence and trust.

My current company, where I've been for more than five years, matches people looking for unsecured personal loans with investors interested in helping fund those loans. We're still a fairly small player in a new sector, so I like to think I understand what we do pretty well. But when I talk with colleagues outside our legal department, I still find myself learning new things about how we operate and gaining a more nuanced understanding of what drives our success.

Miles to Go

Listen more, talk less: It's easier said than done. After almost 20 years of practicing law, I've made some progress, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. So, for better or worse, I expect "becoming a better listener" to remain at the top of my list for many years to come.

--> Sachin Adarkar is general counsel and chief compliance officer of Prosper Marketplace Inc., a peer-to-peer lending company in San Francisco.

Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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