Active Listening: Your Key to Paralegal Success Inside and Outside of the Classroom

If you want to be a great paralegal studies student and a great paralegal, there’s one thing you must do. This one thing is something that most people either think they do really well or that they don’t have to do at all because they know everything.

That thing is a special kind of listening that is known as active listening. Active listening both inside of and outside of the classroom is your key to paralegal success.

What Is Active Listening?

Active listening is when you really take the time to listen to what someone is saying. You’re not just hearing their words. You’re not contemplating what your response will be. You are actively engaged in the listening process. You’re paying full attention to what’s being said.

How this can help in your paralegal studies class: You’re fully engaged. You’ll pay more attention to your instructor. You’ll learn more and you’ll know exactly where you need help. It’s also good practice for your future in a law office.

How this can help in your profession as a paralegal: Whether it’s talking with clients, opposing counsel, court officers, or your supervising attorney, you’re attentive to what’s being said. This is important because it enables you to catch little nuances. With clients, it helps you help them. You’ll know whether they truly understand what’s going on or if there may be more to their story than what they’re telling you. Active listening promotes trust.

The Steps of Active Listening

Active listening in the classroom and in the law firm requires more than just hearing what someone says. It requires the full use of your mind. It also takes practice.

  1. Be prepared. Whether you’re preparing for tort law class or conducting an initial client interview in a law office, you must be prepared. Would you take your family law textbook and notes to your tort law class? Not unless you had those classes on the same day. You would take only what you need to tort law class. Using the example of the initial client interview, be prepared. Clear your desk of other client matters. Yes, you may find that inconvenience. However, it protects potentially sensitive client information and shows the new client that you’re fully focused on them. Review any information that you have about the client or claim. Have a notepad and pen to take notes. If you plan to record the interview, make sure that you ask for the client’s permission and explain why you want to record the interview.
  2. Stay focused when the other person is talking. In class, this should be easy enough. Stay focused on what your instructor is saying. Participate. Don’t think about this week’s assignment or any other appointment you have for that day. If your instructor is asking a question, listen to the entire question. Do not think about what you plan to say while your instructor is talking. You could miss vital information that may affect your answer. When clients talk to you, stay focused. Don’t think about the next question you’re going to ask. Just like in school, you could miss something vital if you’re not fully focused.
  3. Show that you’re listening. In class, this can be as simple as eye contact or taking notes. As a former instructor, I walked the room when I saw people typing or writing to see what they were doing. In the classroom, it shows your instructor that you’re serious about your education. In the law office, show you’re listening by non-verbal cues such as eye-contact and nodding your head. You can inject a few simple phrases such as, “Yes” or “I see. What happened next?” Showing clients that you’re listening reinforces trust.
  4. Ask clarifying questions at the right time. In class, this may be done by raising your hand when the instructor asks if you have questions. In the law office, this can be directly after the client tells you something (but do not interrupt – let them finish their thought). You can also write your questions down and address them toward the end of the interview. Clarifying questions help ensure that you really understand what’s being said.
  5. Don’t interrupt. It can be challenging, at times, to be quiet. Do not interrupt your instructor or client when they are speaking. Wait for them to finish. As you know from experience, it’s rude to interrupt someone when they are speaking. Interrupting people can take them away from their train of thought. It can also upset others.

Active listening can make a big difference in both your student and professional life. Practice active listening every day.

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