What do lawyers need to be good lawyers? A project in Denver is investing a lot of time, energy, and resources into answering that question. It’s the Foundations for Practice study, generated by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.
The background on Foundations for Practice is this:
In late 2014, we launched Foundations for Practice (“FFP”), a national, multi-year project designed to:
1. Identify the foundations entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession;
2. Develop measurable models of legal education that support those foundations; and
3. Align market needs with hiring practices to incentivize positive improvements in legal education.
And since then, they have managed to start and finish a huge survey, reaching 24,000 lawyers nationwide. Their survey covered a breadth of law-related topics:
We asked respondents to rate the necessity of 147 foundations (plus two questions that allowed write-in responses); we asked fourteen questions to identify respondent demographics and practice information; we asked about the value of specialization in law school and in early practice; and we asked the respondents to identify the helpfulness of employment criteria (like law school attended, class rank, clinical experience, externships, and letters of recommendation).
One of their key goals was to survey what skills need to be in place when lawyers start their careers, as contrasted with skills that can and should be learned over time on the job. What’s important for new lawyers? Questions on the survey about what new lawyers need probed respondents’ thoughts in three categories:
- “Legal skills” are those traditionally understood to be required for the specific discipline of law (such as preparing a case on appeal).
- “Professional competencies” are skills seen as useful across vocations (such as managing meetings effectively).
- “Characteristics” are foundations capturing features or qualities (such as sociability).
The overall payoff of the Foundations for Practice study is that respondents ranked these categories in the following order of importance:
2. Professional competencies
3. Legal skills
So this is a pretty big finding: statistically, aspects of good character were reported to be the most necessary for new lawyers right out of law school. The study got to this number by finding that 76 percent of character items in their survey (items such as “integrity and trustworthiness, conscientiousness, and common sense”) were ranked by half or more of the respondents as necessary.
The next most important category was professional competencies “such as listening attentively, speaking and writing, and arriving on time.” 46 percent of these competences were identified by half or more respondents as being necessary for new lawyers.
And the final category was legal skills “such as use of dispute resolution techniques to prevent or handle conflicts, drafting policies, preparing a case for trial, and conducting and defending depositions.” For these items, 40 percent were ranked by half or more of respondents as being necessary for new lawyers.
The section of the report titled Foundations for Practice contains an overall summary of the 77 characteristics, competencies, and skills that more than half of the respondents deemed necessary for new lawyers right away. Some of the most highly rated items involve communication:
- 91.9 percent of respondents said it is important for new lawyers to treat others with courtesy and respect
- 91.5 percent of respondents said it is important for new lawyers to listen attentively and respectfully
- 80.4 percent said it is important for new lawyers to regulate emotions and demonstrate self-control
- 77.7 percent said it is important for new lawyers to demonstrate tact and diplomacy
- 72.9 percent said it is important for new lawyers to be able to work cooperatively and collaboratively in a team
- 71.7 percent said it is important for new lawyers to seek and be responsive to feedback
- 69.2 percent said it is important for new lawyers to demonstrate tolerance, sensitivity, and compassion
- 60.8 percent said it is important for new lawyers to react calmly and steadily in challenging or critical situations
Happily, the survey reveals a broad attitude that many skills can be learned on the job as lawyers. A new lawyer can learn to draft a document or take a deposition. But the study also suggests the belief by respondents that new lawyers either cannot learn character on the job or shouldn’t need to; they should already have it.
Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers will hold its 5th Annual Conference next month. I won’t be able to attend but would welcome tweets and guest blog posts focused on communication skills from those who do attend.
Here’s another overview of the study from Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, who also serves on the study’s advisory group. His post shows how the study’s data can be mined for more specific information.