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IAALS’ Study Reveals What Makes a New Lawyer Successful

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More than 24,000 lawyers across the country respond

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What traits are most important for a new lawyer’s success? According to a recent study by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) at the University of Denver, high character quotient, professional competencies and legal skills rank at the top.

The study, titled “Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient,” is the first of its kind. IAALS conducted the six-month study — surveying more than 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states — through funding from the William and Flora Hewett Foundation and Access Group and in partnership with state bar organizations.

“We knew there were concerns on the employer side that new [law school] graduates didn’t have what they needed, but we didn’t know what that need was,” said Alli Gerkman, director of IAALS initiative Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. “We wanted to give law schools something to work with.”

For the most part, the respondents from the study were in agreement: New law school graduates need a high character quotient (including integrity, work ethic, common sense and grit), as well as professional competencies and legal skills.

While the bar exam tests a student’s academic knowledge as it relates to law, it’s not necessarily a predictor of his or her readiness as a lawyer in the real world. The bar exam, Gerkman said, is one window into a new lawyer’s preparation, but there are several more windows that have to be looked at as well.

“The bar exam has limitations as a tool to evaluate lawyer preparation,” said Gerkman.

The study, she added, provides many opportunities for law schools to create learning outcomes, improve programs and provide greater value to students. Accountability, however, should not solely be placed on the shoulders of law schools. Gerkman said employers have a role in this as well. For one, they need to hire based on the foundations they seek in new graduates and not focus exclusively on criteria like prestige of law school, class rank and law review.

“Our findings in this study have the power to radically shift the discussion about what law schools teach and how employers hire, and to motivate a different approach to educating, training and employing America’s next generation of lawyers,” she said.

Respondents listed the Top 10 Foundations needed in the short term when hiring new law school graduates. They include the ability to keep information confidential, arriving on time for meetings, hearings and appointments, and having integrity and trustworthiness.

Now that the needs of the legal profession are known, Gerkman says IAALS is taking this data and incorporating it into the next phase of the project, which will bring law schools and legal employers together to develop learning outcomes that can also help employers hire based on a broader set of criteria than the ones currently used. Participants at IAALS’ fifth annual Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers Conference, Sept. 22–24, will focus on what learning outcomes should be and how to develop and measure them.