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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    December 01, 2017

    The Right Mix: What Legal Employers Want in New Hires

    Are you looking to hire or be hired or even still in law school? Here are the traits and skills legal employers say job candidates need to stand out in the very competitive legal marketplace. Prepare to question your assumptions.

    Dianne Molvig

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    What do legal employers want in their new lawyer hires? How can they boost the odds of choosing the right new attorneys for their firm, organization, or government agency? These were questions explored in depth in a nationwide survey by Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. The survey’s results question some old assumptions and practices.

    “We see a real opportunity for employers to think about what they want and to hire in a way that aligns with that,” says Alli Gerkman, director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), an independent research center at the University of Denver.

    Striking on such an alignment would seem to be a practical, widely accepted goal. And yet, Gerkman adds, achieving it “will be a challenge.”

    Need for New Hiring Strategies

    Gerkman relates an experience that illustrates where the challenge lies. In the course of her project’s study, she brought together hiring partners from several large law firms for group working sessions. In one exercise, these lawyers received a stack of resumés describing new law school graduates having a wide range of academic achievements and other experiences.

    The lawyers’ first task was to peruse the resumés and decide the order in which they would select these candidates for job interviews.

    Next, Gerkman presented the results of the IAALS survey of some 24,000 attorneys across the country who were asked to rate the foundations – including legal skills, professional competencies, and personal characteristics – that entry-level lawyers need in order to succeed from day one, as well as the foundations they would have to acquire over time.

    The participants in the working group discussed the foundations the survey showed were most important for new lawyers and generally agreed that the survey’s findings “had hit the nail on the head,” Gerkman says.

    Then the lawyers were asked to go back to the resumés they’d chosen in the first exercise. Did their top candidate choices indeed have accomplishments, achievements, and experiences that related to the foundations for success cited in the survey? Invariably, they did not.

    “There was a shift in the room,” Gerkman recalls, “and people looked at me and said, ‘You kind of tricked us there.’”

    There was no trickery. The lawyers saw for themselves that a mismatch existed between what they said they wanted in new lawyers and how they actually selected job candidates to interview.

    They had not chosen based on the foundations they’d just agreed were so essential. Instead, they’d made their choices mostly based on traditional criteria employers often use, such as class rank, law school prestige, and law review experience.

    This mismatch is a common phenomenon in the legal profession, in Gerkman’s view. While changing that is a challenge, she says, there’s also an opportunity. 

    “One of legal employers’ biggest cost – but also their biggest value – is their human capital,” she says. “To the extent they can hire in a way that serves their clients and also enables them to identify top talent that’s perhaps defined differently than it was in the past, they can have a competitive advantage. They will stand out in a very tight legal market.”

    Closing a Gap

    Do law students leave law school prepared to practice law? Various studies have shown that the answer from practicing lawyers is “no.” For instance, one survey in 2015 found that only 23 percent of legal practitioners believe new lawyers have the right skills to enter the profession (BARBRI Group, State of the Legal Field Survey).

    The IAALS’ Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers initiative launched the Foundations for Practice project with the stated goal of “closing the gap between school and career, between credentials and capabilities, and between thinking like a lawyer and becoming one.” This survey was a step toward that vision.

    The more than 24,000 practicing attorneys who completed the survey represented diverse practice settings, areas of practice, and geographic locations. Some 500 in the group were Wisconsin lawyers.

    Survey respondents were asked to complete two survey sections. The first presented 147 foundations of practice – that is, legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics – that were divided into 15 categories:

    • Business development and relations;
    • Communication;
    • Emotional and interpersonal intelligence;
    • Involvement and community service;
    • Legal thinking and application;
    • Litigation practice;
    • Passion and ambition;
    • Professional development;
    • Professionalism;
    • Qualities and talents;
    • Stress and crisis management;
    • Technology and innovation;
    • Transaction practice;
    • Working with others; and
    • Workload management.

    The second section of the survey identified 17 hiring criteria. (See the sidebar, “Top 17 Hiring Criteria.”) Lawyers were asked to indicate the helpfulness of each of these criteria in determining whether a job candidate had the foundations of practice they already had rated as essential to a new lawyer’s success.

    It’s important to note that respondents were not asked how they currently hire. Rather, they were to indicate which of the 17 criteria would help them to determine whether a candidate had the foundations.

    The two parts of the survey have resulted in two published reports to date: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, issued in July 2016, and Hiring the Whole Lawyer: Experience Matters, published in January 2017. Both are available in their entirety at no cost on the IAALS website (, go to “library”).

    The “whole lawyer” is a term that emerged in efforts to communicate the essence of the survey findings. Gerkman defines the whole lawyer as someone entering the profession who has the right blend of characteristics, legal skills, and professional competencies needed to practice. “As the study shows,” she says, “it takes much more than legal skills to make a good lawyer.”

    Top 17 Hiring Criteria

    Legal employers nationwide said these 17 criteria (unranked) would help them determine if a candidate had the foundations of practice they rated as essential to a new lawyer’s success.

    • Law school attended
    • Class rank
    • Law review experience
    • Journal experience
    • Legal employment
    • Legal externship
    • Participation in a law school clinic
    • Other experiential education
    • Law school courses in a particular specialty
    • Law school certification in a particular specialty
    • Recommendations from professors
    • Recommendations from practitioners or judges
    • Extracurricular activities
    • Life experience between college and law school
    • State court clerkship
    • Federal court clerkship
    • Ties to a particular geographic location

    Only one of these criteria (journal experience) was deemed helpful by fewer than one-half of the survey respondents. A majority rated all the other criteria as either “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful.”

    Wisconsin respondents ranked legal employment, recommendations from practitioners or judges, legal externship, and other experiential education as the four top “very helpful” criteria. They ranked journal and law review experience, extra-curricular activities, and class rank lowest on the “very helpful” range.

    The Character Quotient

    Most would agree that being intelligent is crucial to an attorney’s success. In recent years, the profession increasingly also has recognized the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ), or the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. To IQ and EQ, Gerkman and her research team now add a third element.

    In reviewing the survey’s findings, “We saw that characteristics were extremely important,” she says. “So we felt these deserved their own call-out. That’s how we came up with the character quotient” or CQ.

    As noted above, the 147 foundations of practice included three major types: characteristics, professional competencies, and legal skills. While all three types are necessary to a lawyer’s success, key differences emerged as to when survey respondents felt these were necessary.

    A majority of respondents said:

    • 75.6 percent of characteristics or character traits are necessary right out of law school.

    • 45.5 percent of professional competencies (such as listening attentively and respectfully, keeping information confidential, arriving on time, and so on) are necessary right out of law school.

    • 40.0 percent of legal skills are necessary right out of law school.

    In other words, respondents felt most legal skills and professional competencies could develop over the course of a career. But characteristics were deemed vital from the start. 

    10 Characteristics Essential Right Out of Law School. Certain characteristics topped the list. Seventy-five percent or more of survey respondents felt the following were essential right out of law school:

    • Honoring commitments;
    • Integrity and trustworthiness;
    • Diligence;
    • Strong work ethic;
    • Attention to detail;
    • Conscientiousness;
    • Common sense;
    • Intelligence;
    • Strong moral compass; and
    • Energy.

    Gerkman emphasizes that in no way is the survey report suggesting that legal skills are relatively unimportant; rather, only 40 percent of them are necessary right out of law school.

    “One way to look at this,” she says, “is that law graduates who have the characteristics, such as diligence and conscientiousness, and professional competencies, such as communication skills, will be well positioned to learn whatever they need to learn on the job. They will be better able to respond to shifts in the profession, in the market, and in the needs of clients.”

    What’s more, new lawyers themselves will benefit by leaving law school with the right mix of characteristics, competencies, and legal skills, Gerkman contends. “That will not only help them serve clients well,” she says, “but help them get a job” in a tough job market.

    That, of course, comes back to Gerkman’s earlier point: Legal employers need to follow hiring practices that align with what they say they want in new attorneys.

    How Law Schools Can Promote Character

    That is an issue Gerkman encounters often, especially when she presents the survey findings to legal educators. They can’t teach character, she acknowledges, but they can model it in their interactions with lawyers-to-be. And they can help students develop character through law school experiences.

    “Law schools already are doing a lot of that,” Gerkman adds. “But it’s not always done intentionally. They’re focused on teaching legal doctrine or skills. But they also can be intentional about talking to students about the importance of character and assessing it in their students.”

    It’s perhaps easier to model and talk about character in a clinical setting, rather than the classroom, suggests Michael Keller, assistant dean for career and professional development at the U.W. Law School. “I see a lot of students grow substantially as a person,” he says, “because of their experiences in a clinical program or summer placement.”

    Law schools also can convey the importance of character in their messages to incoming students, says Chad Oldfather, associate dean for academic affairs at Marquette University Law School. Marquette now is placing greater emphasis on what Oldfather refers to as “professional formation.” It’s a movement he sees among other law schools, as well.

    “We have made a conscious effort lately to emphasize to new students that we’re not just trying to train you to be lawyers, but to be Marquette lawyers,” he explains, “which means you will have a sense of obligation toward others. The students can start thinking of themselves as lawyers from the moment they walk in the door here, which we hope helps to develop the qualities the report identifies.”

    In fact, it begins even earlier, Gerkman points out. Characteristics develop over a lifetime, and many are in place, or sadly lacking, by the time someone reaches adulthood. Thus, another piece of this discussion relates to law school admissions.

    “When educators tell me that they can’t teach character,” Gerkman says, “I say to them that you don’t have to do this in law school if you consider changing the way you admit law students in the first place.”

    Employers Value Experience

    Six months after publication of the character quotient report, IAALS released its second report based on survey findings: Hiring the Whole Lawyer: Experience Matters. Once survey respondents had rated the necessity of 147 foundations of practice, they were asked to choose hiring criteria that would help them find new lawyers who had those foundations.

    Respondents rated the criteria on a spectrum ranging from “very unhelpful” to “very helpful.” The 17 hiring criteria included law school attended, law review experience, participation in a law school clinic, and recommendations from professors, among others. (For the full list, see the sidebar “Top 17 Hiring Criteria.”)

    Only one of the criteria (journal experience) was deemed helpful by fewer than one-half of the survey respondents. A majority rated all the other criteria as either “very helpful” or “somewhat helpful.”

    Eight Top Experiential Hiring Criteria. The report’s subtitle highlights the key finding: Hiring criteria related to experience outpaced all the others as the most helpful in hiring new lawyers. Eight of the top 10 criteria relate to experience. These are, in the order ranked:

    1. Legal employment;
    2. Recommendations from practitioners or judges;
    3. Legal externship;
    4. Other experiential education;
    5. Life experience between college and law school;
    6. Participation in a law school clinic;
    7. Federal court clerkship; and
    8. State court clerkship.

    The other two of the top 10 were related to academic experience: law school courses in a particular specialty and recommendations from professors.

    The researchers then broke down results by different demographic groups, including practice setting, firm size, years of experience, and geographic region.

    Below are a few of the key findings that arose from analysis of these breakdowns:

    When looking at practice setting, all eight of the experience criteria were on the top-10 lists for those in private practice, government, or “other” (legal services, public interest agencies, education, and so on). In the business in-house group, “law school courses in a specialty” rose into the top 10, bumping “state court clerkship.”

    For all firm sizes, all eight of the experience-related criteria were among the top 10, although ordering of the criteria varied. Class rank climbed into the top-10 list as firm size grew, rising to third place for firms with 101-plus attorneys.

    The eight experience-related hiring criteria appeared among the top 10 for survey respondents no matter how many years they had been practicing law. But, class rank nudged its way onto the top-10 list for lawyers with 21 or more years of experience.

    Finally, all eight experience criteria were among the top 10 in all regions of the country (West, Midwest, South, and Northeast). The same held true in Wisconsin. Here, two academic criteria rounded out the top 10: courses in particular specialty (number 7) and recommendations from professors (number 10). (For more Wisconsin results, go to, scroll under “Issues” to find “Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers,” click on “Foundations for Practice” and then “Explore the Data.”)

    While the order of the top-10 criteria shifted from one group to another, one criterion – legal employment – ranked first for every demographic group.

    These findings on experience are in line with the American Bar Association’s new requirement that law schools provide students with six credits of experiential learning, such as what’s offered in the Lawyering Skills class at the U.W. Law School.

    “In Lawyering Skills, we talk about the three-year learning curve for new attorneys,” says Gretchen Viney, director of the Lawyering Skills Program. “In our class, we’re trying to give students a head start on that learning curve.”

    That’s valued not only by legal employers but also by recent graduates. One common reaction Viney hears from former law students is that they wish they had taken her class.

    “They tell me they couldn’t fit it into their schedule,” she says, “or that they felt they needed just one more doctrinal course instead. But that made no difference on their resumé. The Lawyering Skills course would have made a difference because a lot of employers are looking for experience.”

    Hiring Practices are Starting to Change

    Reliance on traditional criteria persists, especially class rank among the larger firms, as noted above. To an extent, that’s a matter of efficiency, Keller says, based on his experience working in a large firm.

    Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.

    “When you get 500 applications from students from 60 different law schools and you’re trying to decide whom to interview, it’s easier to make a first cut using class rank,” he says. “But that does eliminate people who could be very, very good candidates.”

    A shift in the approach to hiring is under way, observes Amber Schreier, regional vice president of legal staffing and consulting at the Minneapolis office of Robert Half®. “Employers are looking for not only relevant legal skills,” she says, “but also the soft skills referred to in the (IAALS) report. And they’re looking at the full breadth of experiences candidates have had.”

    Experience matters, agrees Erin Binns, director for career planning at Marquette University Law School. “Employers value an amalgamation of experiences, practical and curricular,” she says. “I also wasn’t surprised to see that items related to character and ethics rank high” in the IAALS survey.

    She points out that large firms are increasingly using behavioral techniques in interviews, which are based on the idea that past performance predicts future success. Such techniques do not rely on “what would you do if …” types of questions but on questions that ask, “what did you do in this situation.” Through these sorts of inquiries, “employers are showing their interest in the characteristics and professional competencies discussed in the [IAALS] reports,” Binns says.

    Employers and law schools both have roles to play if new lawyers are to be better suited to enter practice, Gerkman emphasizes, in terms of not only legal skills but also the professional competencies and characteristics deemed crucial for new attorneys. Law schools must provide opportunities for students to develop into “whole lawyers,” and employers must hire based on the attributes and qualities they say they value most.

    “Then lawyers entering the profession will be better prepared to be successful in their careers,” Gerkman concludes. “That will pay dividends not just to them, but also to all the people and organizations they serve.”

    Key Findings: What Makes a New Lawyer Successful?

    A first-of-its kind study, Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, asked, “What makes a new lawyer successful?” More than 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states answered, including 500 from Wisconsin.

    Character Quotient

    New lawyers need more than IQ and EQ to be successful. They also need CQ: Character Quotient. In fact, 76 percent of characteristics (things like integrity, work ethic, common sense, and resilience) were identified by a majority of respondents as necessary right out of law school.

    The Whole Lawyer

    Beyond character, new lawyers are successful when they come to the job with a broad blend of legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics that
    comprise the whole lawyer.

    The Foundations for Practice

    This list of foundations for practice includes all legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics that respondents identified as necessary for new lawyers as
    they leave law school and begin their careers.


    Professional Competencies:
    • Listen attentively and respectfully
    • Promptly respond to inquiries and requests
    • Speak in a manner that meets legal and professional standards
    • Write in a manner that meets legal and professional standards
    • Proactively provide status updates to those involved on a matter


    • Demonstrate tolerance, sensitivity, and compassion

    Professional Competencies:
    • Treat others with courtesy and respect
    • Regulate emotions and demonstrate self-control
    • Exhibit tact and diplomacy
    • Understand and conform to appropriate appearance and behavior in a range of situations


    • Have a personality that fits the firm or organization


    Legal Skills:
    • Effectively research the law
    • Identify relevant facts, legal issues, and informational gaps or discrepancies
    • Gather facts through interviews, searches, document/file review, and other methods
    • Effectively use techniques of legal reasoning and argument (case analysis and statutory interpretation)
    • Critically evaluate arguments
    • Maintain core knowledge of the substantive and procedural law in the relevant focus area(s)


    Legal Skills:
    • Draft pleadings, motions, and briefs
    • Request and produce written discovery
    • Interview clients and witnesses


    • Have a strong work ethic and put forth best effort
    • Show initiative
    • Take ownership

    Professional Competencies:
    • Set goals and make a plan to meet them
    • Have a commitment to justice and the rule of law
    • Enjoy overcoming challenges
    • Have a passion for the work


    • Have an internalized commitment to developing toward excellence
    • Possess self-awareness (strengths, weaknesses, boundaries, preferences, sphere of control)

    Professional Competencies:
    • Take individual responsibility for actions and results
    • Understand when to engage supervisor or seek advice in problem solving
    • Seek and be responsive to feedback
    • Adapt work habits to meet demands and expectations
    • Work autonomously


    • Honor commitments
    • Show loyalty and dedication to the firm or organization and its clients or stakeholders

    Professional Competencies:
    • Keep information confidential
    • Arrive on time for meetings, appointments, and hearings
    • Adhere to proper timekeeping and billing practices
    • Handle dissatisfaction appropriately

    Legal Skills:
    • Understand and apply legal-privilege concepts
    • Document and organize a case or matter
    • Set clear professional boundaries
    • Recognize and resolve ethical dilemmas in a practical setting
    • Conclude relationships appropriately


    • Integrity and trustworthiness
    • Diligence
    • Attention to detail
    • Conscientiousness
    • Common sense
    • Intelligence
    • Strong moral compass
    • Energy
    • Positivity
    • Humility
    • Intellectual curiosity
    • Patience
    • Resourcefulness
    • Perceptiveness
    • Prudence
    • Maturity
    • Grit


    • Exhibit flexibility and adaptability regarding unforeseen, ambiguous, or changing circumstances
    • Exhibit resilience after a setback

    Professional Competencies:
    • React calmly and steadily in challenging or critical situations
    • Cope with stress in a healthy manner
    • Make decisions and deliver results under pressure


    Professional Competencies:
    • Learn and use relevant technologies effectively


    Legal Skills:
    • Prepare client responses
    • Draft contracts and agreements


    Professional Competencies:
    • Work cooperatively and collaboratively as part of a team
    • Express disagreement thoughtfully and respectfully
    • Maintain positive professional relationships
    • Recognize client or stakeholder needs, objectives, priorities, constraints, and expectations


    Professional Competencies:
    • Prioritize and manage multiple tasks
    • Maintain a high quality work product
    • See a case or project through from start to timely finish

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