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Practitioners Rank Legal Research as Only Top-20 Specific Legal Skill for the “Whole Attorney”

In a recent survey conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), a wide array of legal employers ranked the legal skills and professional competencies and characteristics that they believe new lawyers most need to succeed. (There is a detailed accounting of the study’s results and an explanation of the study’s role within IAALS’s broader project in the summer 2018 edition of The Bar Examiner, pp. 17-26.) The results revealed that legal employers value foundational characteristics and competencies much more than they do foundational legal skills. 

The 20 Foundations Identified as Most Necessary in the Short Term for New Lawyers 

• Keep information confidential

• Arrive on time for meetings, appointments, and hearings

• Honor commitments

• Integrity and trustworthiness

• Treat others with courtesy and respect

• Listen attentively and respectfully

• Promptly respond to inquiries and requests

• Diligence

• Have a strong work ethic and put forth best effort

• Attention to detail

• Conscientiousness

• Common sense

• Intelligence

• Effectively research the law 

• Take individual responsibility for actions and results

• Regulate emotions and demonstrate self-control

• Speak in a manner that meets legal and professional standards

• Strong moral compass

• Write in a manner that meets legal and professional standards

• Exhibit tact and diplomacy

As noted by The Bar Examiner, [t]he only specific legal skill that reached the top 20 was legal research.

What we’re seeing is a serious dissonance between what legal educators (and by extension law students) and legal practitioners think are the most important skills for practice. Most law students are graduating from law school thinking that they have the skills necessary to practice as attorneys, but that opinion is not shared by the profession they hope to enter. In one survey, 95 percent of hiring partners and associates believed that recently graduated law students lacked key practical skills at the time of hiring. In another survey, 76 percent of third-year law students believed that they were prepared to practice law “right now,” while only 23 percent of practicing attorneys believed that recent law school graduates were ready to do their jobs.

Interestingly, the 77 foundations identified [in the IAALS Survey] as necessary for new graduates are largely the same across all workplaces, which means that as we begin to identify the overarching learning outcomes that we can—and should—expect of a legal education, we have at least one common goal: the whole lawyer.

When breaking out just the specific legal skills necessary for practice, the IAALS Survey revealed the following:

• Effectively research the law

• Understand and apply legal privilege concepts

• Draft pleadings, motions, and briefs

• Identify relevant facts, legal issues, and informational gaps or discrepancies

• Document and organize a case or matter

• Set clear professional boundaries

• Gather facts through interviews, searches, document/file review, and other methods

• Request and produce written discovery

• Effectively use techniques of legal reasoning and argument (case analysis and statutory interpretation)

• Recognize and resolve ethical dilemmas in a practical setting

• Conclude relationships appropriately

• Critically evaluate arguments

• Maintain core knowledge of the substantive and procedural law in the relevant focus area(s)

• Prepare client responses

• Draft contracts and agreements

• Interview clients and witnesses

The article goes on to mention the possibility of legal educators and professionals using the information from this survey to regulate the skills new lawyers truly need when they enter practice.

One thing that becomes clearer with every practitioner survey is the importance of legal research skills for practice.

Jamie Baker is the Interim Director of the Law Library at Texas Tech University School of Law. She also teaches Civil Trial Research & Academic Legal Writing, as well as sessions in the Legal Practice program and Excellence in Legal Research program. She blogs at www.gingerlawlibrarian.com.

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