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Ten Competencies Law Schools Should Teach – But Don’t

 

The first day on the job for a new lawyer is overwhelming. Theoretically, law school has prepared a new lawyer to be a functioning  attorney. In reality, most new lawyers are clueless. Especially K-JDs.* Most new lawyers wouldn’t be able to find the courthouse if they didn’t have a smartphone.

I recently read a new  law review article, Law School Training: Bridging the Gap between Legal Education and the Practice of Law, by Neil J. Dilloff, that made suggestions on reforming the the law scholl curriculum to help new lawyers be more “practice ready.” 

Before you are immediately dismissive of what a law professor thinks about changing the nature of law school, it is important to note that Dilloff is only an adjunct  professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Dilloff spends most of his time as a senior litigation partner at DLA Piper. So he has the unique perspective of seeing people while learning the law and helping train/mentor new lawyers in his office. Obviously, his perspective is a decidedly BigLaw one, but much of what Dilloff writes is applicable whether a new lawyer is starting at BigLaw or hanging their own shingle:

lawyer handshakeUnless [the new lawyer] has a general understanding of the way law firms operate, including how her new law firm operates, how to deal with her secretary (who also services three other lawyers, including a senior partner) and her paralegal (who also works for five other lawyers, including two partners), has her eye out for a potential mentor, has the “people skills” to seek out the right lawyers for whom to work, has an ability to ferret out the type of assignments she likes and clients for whom she wishes to work, and has developed a can-do, pleasant attitude, all the “book learning” in law school will be of secondary value.

Dilloff goes on to note that while firms used to tolerate the time it took new lawyers to acclimate themselves to practice, but no longer. Clients got smart. They no longer want to pay for training new associates. Plus with the oversupply of lawyers, it’s easy for a firm to pick up a lawyer with a couple of years of experience under their belt for little cost. As such, it is expected that new lawyer be competent right out of the gate. Dilloff goes on to offer ten competencies that he thinks are essential for new lawyers to possess, yet are undervalued or just not taught in law school.

  1. Developing Judgment
  2. Developing Problem-Solving Skills
  3. Developing People Skills
  4. Learning Teamwork
  5. Learning Organizational and Time Management Skills
  6. Developing Business Savvy
  7. Learning How to Develop Business
  8. Learning How to Supervise Others
  9. Learning How to Focus on the Big Picture
  10. Using Common Sense and Understanding Average People

Below is an excerpt from the paper on each competency and a brief comment of my own.

Developing Judgment

I have handled numerous legal malpractice cases, both for plaintiffs and defendants. Most of the problem cases that I have encountered stem from a lack of judgment-moral, ethical, or legal (or a combination) on the part of the lawyer-defendant.

This is a tough one to tackle. It means developing the appropriate moral compass to guide decisions you make in your life. If you haven’t developed on by the time you reach law school, I’m not sure if an ethics class in law school is really going to help. President Lincoln said it best: “…if, in your own judgment, you can not be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer– Choose some other occupation.”

Developing Problem-Solving Skills

While it is very important to identify these ["issues,"] good lawyers trained in creative thinking can devise solutions that are within both legal and ethical bounds. Clients want “can do” lawyers, instead of “can’t do” ones.

Many times lawyers find themselves having to tell clients that they “can’t do” things – often for good reasons. That the client can’t avoid paying a tax or cheat on their spouse legally. But clients also expect their lawyers to be problem solvers. To be a partner and find creative solutions that are both effective and ethically sound.

Developing People Skills

Young lawyers must be able to deal with the politics in any organization, endear themselves to their employers, begin to develop client relations skills, and know how to get along with and effectively manage support staff…

One of the most often overlooked, yet most critical, skills that law school fail to address is “people skills.” How to be social. Make small talk. Delegate, manage, and collaborate. And, as Dilloff notes, how to deal with jerks. Not everyone is going to be nice to you in the real world. Often times, people will go out of their way to be difficult. It would be helpful if new lawyers knew how to handle assholes and not just tuck tail.

Learning Teamwork

All lawyers need to be able to work effectively with others. Even a solo practitioner must deal with co-counsel on occasion, opposing counsel, and court personnel…Although there certainly is a degree of competition in any business, be it a law firm or private or government job, most, if not all, employers want their employees to be able to work together in harmony.

Law school is often hyper competitive. But a law firm is usually a cooperative, team-based environment. You have to work with other lawyers, as well as staff, to handle large matters. Yet law schools largely ignore team-based learning outside of moot competitions and the like. Law schools should look to B-schools for an example of how to do group training right.

Learning Organizational and Time Management Skills

In my experience, the number one reason for associate failure is the inability to manage time, prioritize the work that needs to be done, meet deadlines, and allocate time for continued learning.

Organize, organize, organize. When I was in Chicago for the ABA YLD Leadership Conference someone asked me how I had time to sleep between family/work/volunteering/business development/bl0gging/writing/exercise/hobbies/etc. The answer is that I am extremely organized. My schedule is tight, but that’s not to say that I don’t have fun. But I don’t waste time on extraneous things (like tv). Also, sleep is for the weak.

Developing Business Savvy

Knowing how clients in various businesses think, how they organize their efforts, and understanding their objectives are all important to establishing a good attorney-client relationship. Lawyers must be able to relate to the client’s particular circumstances and business needs.

You have to know your clients business inside and out. End of story. Keep abreast of their industry. Know what’s going on in the greater business world. Stay informed. Clients are looking for you to provide them guidance.

Learning How to Develop Business

You can be the smartest and best lawyer on the block, but if no client walks through the door, you starve…Law schools should start their students thinking and preparing for business generation. Classes on marketing, integration with relevant business school classes, and outside internships can be effective in developing these skills.

Being a lawyer is a profession, but a law firm is a business. A business – and a lawyer – cannot exist without clients. I’m not a fan of marketing, but new lawyers need to learn basic business generation skills. How to pitch themselves. Learn about attending social and business events. Volunteering, mentoring (both ways), and developing relationships.

Learning How to Supervise Others

…in working on a simulated problem, students can be designated as the client or in-house counsel, as the partner responsible for the engagement, and as associates who are assigned specific tasks.

Eventually if you are a lawyer, it is likely that you are going to have to supervise someone else’s work – or be supervised yourself. For the former, see this previous post on S.M.A.R.T. delegation. For the latter, just read Mark Herrmann’s column.

Learning How to Focus on the Big Picture

One of the major problems in a law fum is that younger associates are given pieces of a larger case and asked to do research or review documents in relative isolation. While they may know generally what the case or transaction involves, they are not intimately involved in the major issues of the matter. This puts the associates at a disadvantage because they may not be able to appreciate how their assignment fits into the themes of the case. Accordingly, they may fail to appreciate the significance of either a good or bad document or email, or a statement by a witness at a deposition.

When you’re the bottom man on the totem pole, it’s hard to appreciate the view from the top. But it’s an important skill to learn if you want to work you way up. Learning about the larger issues and themes of your case may not be billable work, but they’re important if you want to do your task well.

Using Common Sense and Understanding Average People

…once a student gets into the mindset that all judicial doctrines are “the law” and that she must reconcile all decisions (by distinguishing the outliers from the mainstream authorities), her innate common sense begins to suffer. Let’s not forget that in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, four of the justices had a different point of view! Thus, law schools should not denude law students of their ability to apply plain old common sense-that of the average juror-to all situations.

Clients don’t think like lawyers. That’s why they hire you. But it’s important to not only think like a lawyer. Being able to think like a client – seeing problems from their perspective – is vital.

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All in all, a great deal of good advice. It’s well worth your time to read the entire article.

Dilloff, Neil Joel, Law School Training: Bridging the Gap between Legal Education and the Practice of Law (2013). Stanford Law & Policy Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2013, pp. 425-456; University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2288714

Originally seen at Legal Writing Prof Blog

*K-JDs – people who have been in school straight from kindergarden to law school and whose first “real job” is being a lawyer.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.
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