Better Lawyer Licensing, Part 4: The Final Three Building Blocks of Minimum Competence

October 2, 2023

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 three previous posts, here and here and here, we covered the first nine 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
  • The ability to conduct research
  • The ability to communicate as a lawyer
  • The ability to understand the “big picture” of client matters

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

Building Block 10: The ability to manage a law-related workload responsibly.

Time management is crucial for lawyers as they handle heavy workloads and have a duty of care to their clients. Effective time management involves balancing speed with quality, as rushing through tasks can lead to mistakes. New lawyers often learn time management skills through “feet to the fire” experience.

Organization is another vital aspect of managing a law-related workload. Lawyers must organize not only their time but also emails, files, and documents related to different client matters. Proper organization ensures that tasks are not confused between clients and helps lawyers meet deadlines and avoid malpractice. While some new lawyers may have developed organizational skills during law school, many feel the need for more practical guidance in this area.

Workplace collaboration is essential for new lawyers who often work with supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Managing relationships and expectations with supervisors can be challenging, as different partners may have varying preferences and priorities. New lawyers may also need to delegate work to others, such as paralegals or student workers, and even manage teams in larger firms. Developing management skills and effectively communicating with colleagues are important aspects of workplace collaboration.

As one participant aptly stated, these workload management skills are essential—without them, the job of a lawyer cannot be done.

Building Block 11: The ability to cope with the stresses of legal practice.

The legal profession is known for its inherent stress, and new lawyers often express the weight of responsibility they feel towards their clients. The transition from law school to practice intensifies this stress as they realize they are now responsible for real people and their lives.

Research supports the notion that stress management is a vital skill for new lawyers. Surveys indicate that lawyers must be able to cope with stress in a healthy manner, exhibit flexibility and adaptability, show resilience in the face of setbacks, make decisions under pressure, and maintain calm in challenging situations. Supervisors also highlight the importance of stress management in the legal profession, and they seek candidates who can handle stressful situations effectively and act quickly in emergencies.

However, assessing the ability to cope with stress is challenging through traditional exams or character and fitness committees. Instead, it is an ability that can be developed. Our research suggests incorporating real-world practice experiences in clinics, externships, or other settings in order to develop and assess this important skill.

Building Block 12: The ability to pursue self-directed learning.

Many new lawyers in our focus groups expressed surprise at the lack of training and supervision they receive in their first year. To competently represent clients, they must take control of their own learning.

New lawyers employ various techniques to fulfill this need. They organize internal trainings and resource libraries, seek materials from senior colleagues, and utilize documents stored on office hard drives. They also turn to professional associations, listservs, and Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs to gain knowledge and connect with experienced lawyers who can serve as mentors.

Admitting their limitations and asking questions is another crucial aspect of self-directed learning. Recognizing the need for assistance and seeking guidance when necessary is a learned skill that new lawyers emphasize. In the complex field of law, self-directed, continuous learning is indispensable for success. It is particularly crucial in the first year of practice, forming an essential component of minimum competence.

The knowledge, skills, and judgment laid out here work in tandem with the first nine building blocks of minimum competence. 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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