Georgia Criminal Appellate Law Blog Offering Insight and Commentary on Appellate Law and Criminal Trial Practice

To Be a Better Listener / To Ask for Advice Better

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship, Writing

It’s been a long holiday season, and January’s been a busy time. I’m hoping to re-develop the blogging habit. And I find that I am much better at writing posts when I’m reading posts. Toward that end, I opened up the RSS app and caught back up on my favorite blogs, Simple Justice and Defending People. Scott Greenfield is as prolific as ever. He writes more blog posts before 8:00 a.m. than some people write all year. Mark Bennett is doing some sort of thing where he is numbering his blog posts.

Two of their posts caught my attention. One post is about listening and the other is about asking for advice. To be in a helping profession, lawyers are pretty bad at both. Law school doesn’t help us in the listening department. After all, we are trained to spot issues, to separate wheat from chaff, and to separate the most pertinent components of the fact patterns from the fluff. Clients need us to have that skill. But clients often have other needs — namely to “vent” or have somebody hear their story. A tension exists between those two needs. So, sometimes it’s good to just let the client go. Sometimes, it’s best to direct the story to the most pertinent facts. It’s not always easy to know when to do which. Moreover, sometimes lawyers get so busy that some of us avoid communicating with the client at all (under-communication is a common source of bar complaints). Scott Greenfield quotes Bennett:

Listening is vital to trial lawyers. It’s probably more important than any other single skill, but it is less studied, less trained, and less practiced. Lawyers often don’t listen very well. I’ve seen egregiously bad examples from all sides of the criminal bar; many times I’ve wanted to shake a lawyer or judge by the collar and shout, did you not hear what that person just said?

But the listener is not the only party to the conversation who needs to step up his game. The person asking for advice needs to do some work as well. I very often get calls from colleagues with tough legal issues who want to “pick my brain.” It’s often an honor to be a person whom other professionals might want to turn for advice on how to think about things. It is also an honor to be a person whom a potential client seeks out for help. The best “seekers” of advice do their homework before coming to me. The worst have no real sense of what their problem is and look to you to define it for them. He has three pointers for asking for advice:

before you ask for advice do whatever legal research you can yourself. You’d better have spent some time on the problem before bringing it to mentors. Not doing so is lazy and disrespectful—if your mentors thought your time was more valuable than theirs, you would be the mentors and they would be the proteges. If you haven’t already done a bunch of online research, their advice is probably going to be “get back with us after you’ve spent some time on Westlaw” or Lexis or CaseMaker … or even Google Scholar.

Secondly, you should know the facts inside out and be prepared to answer questions about them before you go to another person for advice.

Third, be able to explain succinctly the problem and be able to explain the work you have done before coming to the person for advice.

* From other lawyers, it can be difficult when a person calls to say, “I’m doing an appeal, and I’m not sure what to do. How do you do a criminal appeal?” I have gotten those calls. They’re maddening.
* From potential clients, it can be difficult if the client does not know whether or how many times she has been convicted in the past, does not know exactly what her charges are, and is not all that certain what the status of the case is.

How to ask for advice and how to listen to a person who needs advice are two great topics for a new year. On this blog, I’m hoping to “listen” more to other bloggers, to courts, and to clients to make this website more valuable. I also hope to use this more of a forum to seek the wisdom of others in a more deliberate way. I hope to get better at these things in my practice as well.