Law Firm Competency Models & Student Professional Success: Building on a Foundation of Professional Formation/Professionalism

Document Type

Law Review Article

Publication Date



professional identity formation


Both law students and law schools have an opportunity created by the convergence of (1) significant employment market changes for law graduates, (2) sharp declines in law school applications, (3) increased applicant attention to each school’s employment outcomes, (4) law firm development of competency models to assess associate development, and (5) the high probability of accreditation changes emphasizing each student’s competency to represent clients and participate ethically in the profession. A law student who understands legal employer competency models can differentiate him or herself from other graduates by using the three years of law school to develop (and to create supporting evidence to demonstrate) specific competencies beyond just knowledge of doctrinal law, legal analysis, and some written and oral communication skills. Indiana law professor Bill Henderson notes that “there is a glut in the market for entry level law graduates. Further, virtually all lack the skills needed to differentiate themselves . . . .”

In Part I below, this essay analyzes all available empirical research on the values, virtues, capacities and skills in law firm competency models that define the competencies of the most effective and successful lawyers. Part II examines empirical evidence on the competencies that clients evaluate. Part III evaluates the competencies that make the most difference in fast-track associate and partnership promotions. These data and analyses lead to several bold propositions developed in Part IV:

1. Law students and legal educators should identify and understand the values, virtues, capacities and skills (the competencies) of highly effective and successful lawyers in different types of practice (one major example is law firm competency models analyzed below in Part I);

2. Each student should use all three years of experiences both inside and outside of law school (including the required and elective curriculum, extracurricular activities, and paid or pro bono work experiences) to develop and be able to demonstrate evidence of the competencies that legal employers and clients want in the student’s area of employment interest;

3. Law schools should develop a competency-based curriculum that helps each student develop and be able to demonstrate the competencies that legal employers and clients want; and

4. Both law students and law schools should understand that the values, virtues, capacities and skills of professional formation (professionalism) are the foundation for excellence at all of the competencies of an effective and successful lawyer.