University of Denver

Professional Formation: What Legal Employers Look for in New Lawyers

IAALS Intern

Professor Neil W. Hamilton of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, an ETL Consortium School, recently published an article that analyzes empirical research on the competencies that legal employers and clients are looking for in new lawyers. For the article, Changing Markets Create Opportunities: Emphasizing the Competencies Legal Employers use in Hiring New Lawyers (Including Professional Formation/Professionalism), Professor Hamilton surveyed four types of employers: larger law firms, small firms, county attorneys, and legal aid offices. He found all four groups highly valued certain competencies, dubbing them "professional formation competencies":

  • Integrity/honesty/trustworthiness;
  • Good judgment/common sense/problem solving;
  • Initiative/ambition/drive/strong work ethic;
  • Dedication to client service/responsiveness to clients;
  • Commitment to the firm/department/office, its goals, and its values;
  • Commitment to professional development toward excellence;
  • Inspires confidence; and
  • Seeks feedback/responsiveness to feedback.

Professor Hamilton stresses that law students, recent graduates, and legal educators should bear these competencies in mind, as they are of great importance to employers. And, law schools have an opportunity to differentiate themselves by focusing on these competencies and providing students with assessment information about their development within each area.

Probing the foundation of the professional formation competencies more deeply, we see that the implicit foundation for all of the professional formation values, virtues, and habits that legal employers want is each student's moral core—characterized by the internalization of deep responsibilities for and service to others, particularly the client.

Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers is engaging in this inquiry as well, through the Foundations for Practice project, which will determine the foundations entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession. The multi-year project will identify the desired foundations for new lawyers, the models of legal education necessary to get us there, and the tools legal employers can use to make better entry-level hiring decisions.

Riley Combelic is a third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to