For the past couple of days, I’ve been at a conference held by Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). The purpose of the conference was to kick off a year-long project entitled Foundations For Practice that was being helmed by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers (ETL), a subset of IAALS. ETL is trying to determine the fundamental skills that new law graduates need to make them as appealing as possible to employers directly after they graduate from law school — i.e., how can law schools make sure that their graduates have skills that are valuable to future employers.
IAALS gathered a diverse group of lawyers to discuss the issue. Present were public defenders, judges, former ABA presidents, attorneys general, public interest lawyers, general counsels, Biglaw partners, and small firm lawyers such as myself and fellow Above The Law columnist Carolyn Elefant. We were there to give our perspectives on what were the skills we thought were necessary for new lawyers. Obviously there was strong general consensus as to what skills were necessary for new lawyers to have.
In our discussions, certain skills emerged as universally valued among the participants: integrity, a strong work ethic, and a high degree of analytical ability. Everyone also agreed that strong writing skills were a must — while lamenting the state of writing skills among recent law graduates. Among the participants who had been practicing over twenty years, nearly all of them agreed that the writing skills of recent law graduates have been deteriorating year after year.
But after these few core skills, opinions began to diverge wildly.
At one point we broke off into small groups to discuss the résumés of five hypothetical law graduates. We were to rank and comment on each résumé, stating with whom we were most likely to interview. I was partnered with a general counsel, a public interest attorney, an attorney general, and another small-firm lawyer. We took a few minutes to rank and give notes on the résumés. As soon as the person chairing our group got us back together to discuss whom we would hire and why, we discovered we were all over the map. In some instances, our rankings were polar opposites.
The public interest lawyer was looking for passion and a devotion to pro bono work. The general counsel and the attorney general were focused on class rank and past activities that indicated working well in a team setting. The other small-firm lawyer and I were focused on real experience in a business setting and indications that the person would be able to contribute to client development right out of the gate. Interestingly enough, everyone did agree that a strong background in athletics was a plus.
But of course, a J.D. is a general-purpose degree. And law schools largely churn out graduates to fit into the Biglaw, Am Law 200 model. But those positions are dwindling. Am Law 200 jobs are going to an increasingly smaller group of students every year. The majority of lawyers across the country have always been in small firms or solos, but now that number is increasing rapidly. For many recent graduates, employment at a large firm will never be an option. It doesn’t matter if they have skills that an employer may value if there are no positions to fill.
From my perspective, for the crop of students coming out of law schools now, entrepreneurial skills should rank high on the list of skills they should possess. The ability to operate independently without much supervision, at ease in meeting new people and building relationships, being well versed in computers and IT, a fierce determination to succeed in the face of insurmountable obstacles, and a willingness to take personal responsibility for all of their actions are all necessary skills for a new lawyer who is going solo or entering a small firm.
Which leads to two questions: will law schools be willing to teach these skills? And are they even capable of doing so?
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @associatesmind.