The Whole Lawyer: Small Variations Across Practice Settings

Zachariah DeMeola Zachariah DeMeola
Former Director of Legal Education and the Legal Profession
April 30, 2018

In our previous blog, we explained that the 77 foundations survey respondents identified as being necessary for new lawyers immediately upon graduation from law school, which IAALS reported in Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, are consistent and definitive throughout the practice of law. We called the new lawyer who exhibits these 77 specific foundations the “whole lawyer.” The similarities we saw in responses across demographics, firm sizes, and practice-specific characteristics suggest that the findings in The Whole Lawyer and Hiring the Whole Lawyer: Experience Matters can be employed with confidence by law schools, the profession, employers, and others to facilitate the development of crucial foundations needed by lawyers right out of law school.

Nonetheless, there were a few notable practically significant differences that arose among the various practice settings we studied. Specifically, one of the demographics we collected was type of legal practice, which we organized into four categories: private practice, business in-house, government, and other settings (e.g., education, legal services/public defender, public interest/nonprofit). In seeking to understand the nuance in responses from lawyers within these different settings, we considered a difference practically significant if the difference between practice settings is large enough to influence our thinking in practice. Explicitly stated, we defined a practically significant difference as one that—in addition to being statistically significant(1)—meets two criteria.

Criterion for Practical Significance

The first criterion for practical significance requires the responses from a practice setting to diverge from the overall results. We categorized foundations as either necessary in the short term, must be acquired over time, advantageous but not necessary, or not relevant when at least half of responses indicated such. For foundations where no response option constituted at least 50%, we categorized the foundation as inconclusive. So, whenever a categorization for a particular practice setting diverged from the categorization based on overall results, the first criterion for practical significance was satisfied.

The second criterion for practical significance requires a difference of ten percentage points or more between at least two practice settings for any response option. Thus, we used two criteria for identifying meaningful results: one criterion that allowed us to identify foundations where respondents in a particular practice setting answered differently than did respondents as a whole, and one criterion that allowed us to identify foundations where the respondents in individual practice settings answered differently than did their counterparts in other practice settings.

Respondents Across Practice Settings Identified Few Differences in Desired Foundations for New Lawyers 

Because our initial reports focus on the foundations that make up the whole lawyer at the point new lawyers enter the profession, we focus here on differences in foundations that are necessary in the short term. That is, instances where either responses for a particular practice setting warrant categorization as necessary in the short term when it was not categorized as such within the overall results or vice versa. Using this approach, we found that the foundations that constitute the whole lawyer within the four practice settings are very similar to the 77 foundations identified in the overall results as the original basis for the whole lawyer:

To reiterate, overall, the whole lawyer possesses 77 foundations immediately out of law school. The whole lawyer from the private practice perspective also possesses a total of 77 foundations, 74 of which appear in the overall whole lawyer and three of which do not. For business in-house settings, 74 foundations comprise the whole lawyer, all of which are also part of the overall whole lawyer except one. A total of 73 foundations make up the whole lawyer from the government perspective—all but one of these are also part of the overall whole lawyer. Finally, for other practice settings, the whole lawyer possesses 76 foundations, with 75 of those overlapping with the overall whole lawyer. The message is clear. Although there is some divergence, the results are overwhelmingly consistent across practice settings.The table below presents the areas of divergence between the whole lawyer for each practice setting compared with the overall whole lawyer.

Setting Foundations Added to the Overall Whole Lawyer Foundations Removed from the Overall Whole Lawyer
Private Practice
  • Be visible in the office
  • Seek out work or training that will expand skills, knowledge, or responsibilities
  • Adhere to proper collections practices  
  • Interview clients and witnesses
  • Draft contracts and agreements
  • See a case through from start to a timely finish  
Business In-house
  • Understand the challenges of virtual communication and the steps needed to address them
  • Maintain core knowledge of the substantive and procedural law in the relevant focus area(s)
  • Draft pleadings, motions, and briefs
  • Interview clients and witnesses
  • Request and produce written discovery  
  • Frame a case, analysis, or project compellingly
  • Have a personality that "fits" the firm or organization
  • Interview clients and witnesses
  • Grit
  • Draft contracts and agreements
  • Recognize client or stakeholder needs, objectives, priorities, constraints, and expectations  
  • Frame a case, analysis, or project compellingly
  • Have a personality that "fits" the firm or organization
  • Draft contracts and agreements  

In the survey, foundations were organized into 15 separate foundation categories.(2) Notably, five different foundation categories had no practically significant differences affecting the whole lawyer across practice settings: Technology and Innovation, Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence, Passion and Ambition, Working with Others, and Stress and Crisis Management. Meaning, respondents across practice settings generally agreed on the required foundations in those categories.

Interestingly, the differences that we did we observe across practice settings largely confirm what one might guess. For example, lawyers in private practice believed that new lawyers need to seek out work or training that will expand skills, knowledge, or responsibilities; adhere to proper collections practices; and be visible in the office. The emphasis on these foundations may reflect the practical and business realities of private practice work. In a fast-paced environment that often requires lawyers to work together in team settings and relies on business development to grow, it makes sense that new lawyers would be expected to seek their own work or training opportunities, stick to billing collection practices, and be present in the office for any work that may need a helping hand. In addition, new lawyers in private practice may generally be more likely to serve in a support role for more experienced lawyers in the firm, so they are less frequently running their own cases or managing clients directly. Thus, interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting contracts and agreements, and seeing a case through from start to a timely finish may be important foundations as they develop as lawyers, but are not foundations they need to begin their practice.

In-house lawyers generally found litigation practices, such as maintaining core knowledge of the substantive and procedural law in the relevant focus area(s); drafting pleadings, motions, and briefs; and requesting and producing written discovery to be less relevant in the short run, which may reflect the practical reality that many businesses rely on their in-house counsel for transactional or regulatory work and rely on outside counsel in private practice for litigation needs. In addition, in-house lawyers put a premium on virtual communication needs, reflecting the importance of keeping lines of communication open with executives, managers, and other decision-makers within a business.

For both lawyers in the government and other practice settings, framing a case, analysis, or project compellingly was important enough to be necessary for new lawyers, while foundations more traditionally associated with civil work, such as drafting a contract or agreement, were not as important. In addition, having a personality that “fits” the organization was not a requirement for new lawyers. All of these differences may reflect the regulatory, administrative, or criminal nature of work done by these attorneys, and the need for having attorneys that prioritize their work assignments without having to manage or develop business relationships.

Respondents Across Practice Settings Confirm Importance of Character Quotient

In addition to looking at the results at the foundation level, we looked at the types of foundations that make up the whole lawyer for each practice setting, as compared to one another and the overall whole lawyer. The 147 foundations in the survey fell into one of three categories: legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics.(3) Nearly half (45%) of all foundations presented in the survey were professional competencies, while the remainder were split between legal skills (27%) and characteristics (28%).

Interestingly, and as discussed in our initial report, the foundation type breakdown when considering the whole lawyer is quite different. Indeed, overall and across practice settings, characteristics make up a disproportionately large percentage of foundations that constitute the whole lawyer (around 40% across the board), while legal skills make up a smaller proportion. As we discussed in the Whole Lawyer, new lawyers need character regardless of practice setting.

While different practice settings placed more or less importance on a few foundations, overall the foundations that make up the whole lawyer are consistent and definitive across practice settings.

In our final blog of this series, we will discuss which of the whole lawyer foundations some private practice firm sizes emphasized over others, and offer some explanation for those differences so that those using the 77 foundations that make up the whole lawyercan understand how lawyers in different firm sizes may value them.


1.  A statistically significant result suggests that an observed pattern within the data likely reflects a true response pattern in the population, rather than one that emerged from the sample by chance. However, when respondents in one demographic group consistently indicate that a given foundation is more (or less) helpful than do those in another group and when there are a large number of responses, a result may be statistically significant, even when there is not much divergence between the groups.

2.  There are three Foundation Types (Legal Skills, Professional Competencies, and Characteristics), and fifteen Foundation categories, which include Business Development and Relations, Communications, Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence, Involvement and Community Service, Legal Thinking and Application, Litigation Practice, Passion and Ambition, Professional Development, Professionalism, Qualities and Talents, Stress and Crisis Management, Technology and Innovation, Transaction Practice, Working with Others, and Workload Management. For more information, click here and review pages 6-21.

3.  “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). For more information, click here and review page 22.