Better Lawyer Licensing, Part 3: The Third Three Building Blocks of Minimum Competence

August 30, 2023

"hand placing wooden blocks on top of one another"IAALS’ report, Building a Better Bar: The Twelve Building Blocks of Minimum Competence, provides the first-ever empirically grounded definition of the minimum competence required to practice law. Our comprehensive study found that minimum competence consists of 12 interlocking “building blocks,” which reveal not only what it takes to be a minimally competent lawyer, but how current licensing systems must be improved to reflect what new lawyers—and those they work with—actually do in practice.

In two previous posts, here and here, we covered the first six building blocks of minimum competence:

  • The ability to act professionally and in accordance with the rules of professional conduct
  • An understanding of legal processes and sources of law
  • An understanding of threshold concepts in many subjects
  • The ability to interpret legal materials
  • The ability to interact effectively with clients
  • The ability to identify legal issues

Now, we’re covering the next three building blocks, looking closer at more of the interlocking components of what it takes to be ready to practice law.

Building Block 7: The ability to conduct research.

During their first year of practice, new lawyers emphasize the significance of research skills. They believe that being a competent lawyer is not solely about knowing the answers to legal questions, but rather about knowing how to obtain those answers. The research abilities required encompass various tasks:

  • Responding to specific legal queries from clients or supervisors
  • Verifying and updating legal doctrines
  • Gathering factual and non-legal information relevant to client matters
  • Discovering local rules and practices

New lawyers rely on diverse sources for their research, including commercial databases like Lexis or Westlaw, free databases provided by bar associations, treatises, in-house knowledge banks, and online search engines such as Google—often combining research methods to address client needs effectively. New lawyers also tend to verify information rather than relying on memory, even if they have a general understanding of legal principles.

Facts pertaining to client matters are primarily obtained from supervisor reports or client interviews. However, lawyers sometimes need to research facts and principles in other fields to better understand their clients’ situations. Specialized cases may require even more specific research.

Finding information about local rules and practices poses a unique challenge for new lawyers. Many are unaware of the existence of these rules or the fact that judges and government offices can issue orders specific to their courtrooms or departments. Online resources like court websites can offer guidance, while direct contact with officials or colleagues may also be necessary. Supervisors often encourage new lawyers to cultivate relationships with government clerks and seek their assistance in navigating local rules effectively.

Building Block 8: The ability to communicate as a lawyer.

New lawyers need to develop the skill of concise communication, as today’s workplace demands brevity. Lawyers should convey important information in a concise manner to accommodate busy clients and supervisors. Oral presentations are also crucial, as new lawyers must make a strong impression in a limited timeframe.

Finding the right language to communicate with clients is a challenge for new lawyers. Traditional law school classes often overlook the art of communicating and speaking with clients, as well as building trust. Choosing effective communication methods is also an important skill. While concise communication is preferred, some matters require more in-depth treatment. New lawyers must learn to identify the appropriate level of detail and select the most suitable communication channel, such as email, phone calls, or face-to-face interactions. However, some new lawyers tend to rely excessively on email or text messages, which can hinder effective communication and lead to unnecessary back-and-forth exchanges.

Attending to communications from others is crucial for effective communication. New lawyers often fail to listen carefully to messages sent by others, both in written and oral form. Active listening, which includes reading between the lines, understanding body language, and asking the right questions, is essential to comprehend the full message and address clients’ needs effectively.

Negotiation skills are also vital for new lawyers. Negotiating with opposing counsel, union agents, pro se opponents, and even their own clients requires a collaborative and flexible approach. The argumentative style learned in law school may not be always be suitable. Many new lawyers express a desire for more negotiation classes during their legal education to better prepare them for this aspect of their work.

Building Block 9: The ability to understand the “big picture” of client matters. 

One crucial skill for competent legal representation is the ability to grasp the overall context and significance of client matters. Focus group participants emphasized that new lawyers often struggle with this skill. They likened it to seeing a map in a video game, where initially everything is grayed out, and progress is necessary to reveal the terrain. With experience, lawyers develop a clearer understanding of the entire map, enabling them to navigate better for each client.

The lack of “big picture” comprehension leads to two main challenges for new lawyers. Firstly, they face difficulties managing projects effectively. Whether handling their own cases or working within a team, new lawyers sometimes miss important deadlines because they fail to grasp the full timeline and scope of the project. Secondly, new lawyers struggle to develop strategies that guide client matters. Although they possess knowledge of legal rules, they find it challenging to integrate these rules into successful strategies. These issues for new lawyers cross both large and small firms and areas of practice

Supervisors also note these shortcomings among new lawyers. They find that many associates understand the technical aspects of the work but lack comprehension of the cause-and-effect dynamics and the consequences of their actions. Supervisors stress the importance of being able to see rules and client matters from a broader perspective, rather than getting lost in the details. New lawyers must be able to identify goals and objectives, develop strategies, exercise practical judgment, manage projects, and engage in strategic planning—while also recognizing client or stakeholder needs.

The knowledge, skills, and judgment laid out here work in tandem with the first six building blocks of minimum competence—and these, in turn, go hand in hand with the final three building blocks, which we’ll explore in more detail in an upcoming post. Together, these components provide a foundation that ensures new lawyers are actually practice-ready and can serve clients with confidence.

Our full findings and recommendations, including the 12 building blocks of minimum competence, our 5 insights for assessment, and our 10 recommendations for better licensing, can be found here.

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