Parts of the Whole Lawyer

Foundations Types

When the profession laments the lack of preparation new lawyers have, what that preparation should comprise is somewhat surprising. Specifically, the “skills” they cite are often much broader than the typical legal skills we think of as a necessary outcome of legal education. The profession is seeking new lawyers who have legal skills, of course, but also professional competencies and characteristics. We wanted to understand just how important these broader types of foundations were for new lawyers to be successful. To do this, we divided the 147 foundations into the three types. “Characteristics” are foundations capturing features or qualities (such as sociability). “Professional competencies” are skills seen as useful across vocations (such as managing meetings effectively). “Legal skills” are those traditionally understood to be required for the specific discipline of law (such as preparing a case on appeal). Almost half (45%) of the survey items addressed professional competencies, while characteristics and legal skills each accounted for just over one-quarter of survey items (28% and 27%, respectively).(29)

Necessity and Urgency of Foundations

From a conceptual standpoint, the response options—“necessary in the short term,” “must be acquired over time,” “advantageous but not necessary,” and “not relevant”—can be thought of as getting at two different, but related, ideas: necessity of the foundation and urgency of the foundation. If a foundation is classified as either “necessary in the short term” or “must be acquired over time,” it is ultimately necessary at some point in time; the difference in these two options represents the degree of urgency for the new lawyer in gaining proficiency in the foundation. If, however, a foundation is classified as “advantageous but not necessary” or “not relevant,” clearly the foundation is not necessary for a lawyer to be successful.

Necessity within Each Foundation Type

In determining necessity and degree of urgency for the foundations within each of the three types, we considered a foundation to be necessary, advantageous but not necessary, or not relevant if at least half of respondents categorized the foundation as such. Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents considered an overwhelming majority (92%) of the foundations to be necessary; that is, 135 out of the 147 foundations.

Within each of the three foundation types, there was some slight variation with respect to the proportion of foundations considered necessary: 98% of legal skills, 95% of characteristics, and 86% of professional competencies.(30) However, this difference was not statistically significant.(31) A small proportion of foundations were categorized as advantageous but not necessary, all of which were professional competencies (8% of foundations within that type).There were no foundations that half or more of respondents classified as not relevant, although there was a handful of foundations for which responses were more spread across the response options and, thus, no one option represented half or more of respondents (6% of professional competencies, 5% of characteristics, and 2% of legal skills).

Figure 16: Necessity of Foundations within Each Foundation Type

Urgency within Each Foundation Type

Although the foundations within each of the three foundation types—characteristics, legal skills, and professional competencies—were almost entirely considered necessary by at least half of respondents, there was considerable variation in how urgent foundations were considered within each of the types.

Overall, respondents categorized 52% of foundations (or 77) as necessary in the short term and indicated that 24% (or 35) must be acquired over time. However, there was a great deal of variation in the degree of urgency for necessary foundations within each foundation type—and these differences were found to be statistically significant.(32) Of the three foundation types, characteristics were most likely to be categorized as necessary in the short term, with a full three-quarters (76%) of foundations in that type being considered such. Much smaller proportions of professional competencies (46%) and legal skills (40%) were seen as necessary in the short term by half or more of respondents.

Figure 17: Degree of Urgency of Necessary Foundations within Each Foundation Type

Considering the data from a different vantage point, Table 1 below presents the ten individual foundations categorized as necessary in the short term by the largest proportions of respondents. Examination of these ten most urgent foundations provides further confirmation that legal skills tend to be considered less urgent than characteristics and professional competencies—in fact, legal skills make no appearance in the top ten foundations new lawyers need for success right out of law school.

Table 1: Top 10 Foundations Categorized as Necessary in the Short Term

Conversely, a closer look at the ten foundations that the largest proportion of respondents indicated must be acquired over time suggests it is legal skills that lawyers tend to think of as the foundations that should be cultivated throughout practice—and are not necessary in the short term.

Table 2: Top 10 Foundations Categorized as Must be Acquired Over Time

The bottom line is that—overwhelmingly—professional competencies, characteristics, and legal skills are viewed as vital to success in a career as a lawyer. The nuance lies in the degree to which these types of foundations, and the individual foundations within them, are needed immediately upon entering a legal career or can be nurtured over time. The data demonstrates that attorneys largely see characteristics as the most important foundations new lawyers need in the short term, while legal skills are necessary, but less urgent. This has valuable, and perhaps unexpected, implications for the path forward in legal education. In fact, it stands some presumptions on their head. It is not the granular, practical knowledge that new lawyers need to have in hand immediately; rather, it is the characteristics that will allow them to succeed and allow them to learn those practical skills over time. They need to show up with those characteristics, ready to learn the rest.


29.  For a full explanation of how we compiled the list of 147 foundations, see Gerkman & Cornett, supra note 10.

30.  We recognize that considering a foundation necessary if at least half, that is between 50% and 100%, of respondents categorized it as such could potentially represent a great deal of variation in the actual proportions. Indeed, the proportions of respondents categorizing these foundations as necessary ranged from 52% to 99%. However, for a full 117 of these foundations, at least 75% of respondents indicated the foundation was necessary. Further, the average proportion of respondents who categorized these foundations as necessary was 87%, with negligible variation amongst the three types: 86% for professional characteristics, 89% for both characteristics and legal skills.

31.  x2 (4) = 7.20, p = 0.125

32.  x2 (2) = 13.17, p = 0.001