Top Foundations Attorneys Look for in Entry-Level Hires: A Student Perspective

By now, anyone who is familiar with the Foundations for Practice study knows that the data gathered from the 24,000+ lawyers surveyed provides a gold mine of information for law schools, the legal profession (especially legal employers), and law students/recent grads.  

As a current law student, perhaps the most eye-opening revelation from the study so far is the list of the Top 10 skills, competencies, and characteristics (collectively, the “foundations”) current lawyers believe entry-level lawyers need to launch successful legal careers.

What makes the list so surprising is not necessarily each individual item, which make a lot of sense when you think about them, but rather the fact that the things lawyers believe we aspiring attorneys need in the short term are all (mostly) completely within our own control.

The Top 10 list separates the foundations entry-level lawyers need into two groups: those necessary in the short term and those that must be acquired over time. The foundations that must be acquired over time include more technical skills like developing an expertise in a particular area of the law, managing meetings effectively, and learning how to prepare for a trial or determine the soundness of a proposed contract. On the flip side, the foundations practicing attorneys say are necessary to be successful in the short term are all characteristics and behaviors that law students can (and should) develop right now.

According to the first report (and there are more reports on the way), the top ten foundations law students need to be successful in the short term are:

  • The ability to keep information confidential
  • Punctuality
  • Consistently honoring commitments
  • Having integrity and trustworthiness
  • Treating others with courtesy and respect
  • The ability to listen attentively and respectfully
  • Responding promptly to inquiries and requests
  • Diligence
  • A strong work ethic
  • Attention to detail

None of these important short-term foundations require years of practicing law to master. Many are simple and intuitive, and yet they are crucially important for us students if we hope to start our legal-careers off on the right foot. These are essentially good habits that we can practice in our everyday lives, and there are many ways to cultivate these foundations both inside and outside the classroom.

As I first read through the list, I immediately recognized that many of these foundations are behaviors and subconscious skills that I am currently working on through my involvement in clinical courses. Any student interested in developing these skills may want to consider getting involved with a clinical program because they allow students to build the necessary short-term (and long-term) foundations through the representation of real clients under the supervision of licensed attorneys.

However, clinical programs are not the only way that students can establish these foundations. Other activities like mock trial teams, work experience, research projects, and other leadership roles can help us students build the good habits we need to start a successful career in law.

But whether its clinical experience through a university, summer work experience, or simply being aware of these behaviors in our everyday lives, the necessary short term foundations identified in the Foundations for Practice report are something that every law students should be cognizant of.

Hiring attorneys are looking to see if we students and recent grads have these skills, competencies, and characteristics on day one, and they know that all the ins and outs of legal practice can then be learned over time.

Mark Staines is a second-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.

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