The Character Quotient: The Foundation of Legal Success?

The Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education (ACCLE) and the Canadian Association of Law Teachers (CALT) held a joint annual conference for the first time at the University of Victoria June 8-10. The theme was “The Whole Lawyer,” with many sessions focusing on experiential learning.

The keynote was an interesting talk by Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver. The IAALS is a think tank working on the development and application of innovative solutions for the toughest problems facing the US courts and legal profession. Its process is to gather research and stakeholders, create recommended models, facilitate and monitor implementation, and measure outcomes.

Justice Kourlis told the conference that US law students are facing huge obstacles after graduation: 38% of 2016 US law grads did not land full time, long term law jobs. A full 24% have no full time, long term job at all.

While 45% of US law professors believe grads have sufficient skills to practice, only 23% of practitioners agree. Clearly there is a disconnect between the US academy and the profession, and I expect the same would be true in Canada.

In light of these numbers, the IAALS set out to determine the competencies, skills, characteristics, and qualities that new lawyers need to be ready for the practice of law. It sent out a survey to which over 24,000 lawyers responded. The respondents were asked about 147 different “foundations” (determined by reviewing past reports and having experts help refine them). The foundations were broken down into three categories: legal skills (27% of the foundations), professional competencies (45%), and personal characteristics (28%).

Of the 147 foundations, the lawyers identified 77 as necessary right out of law school. Character was the key – the IAALS calls it the character quotient. However, to be a whole lawyer, law grads need foundations in all three categories.

Here are some examples of character that are needed right after law school:

  • Listen attentively and respectfully
  • Promptly respond to inquiries and requests
  • Have a strong work ethic and put forth best effort

As for legal skills needed after law school, here are some examples:

  • Effectively research the law
  • Identify relevant facts, legal issues, and informational gaps or discrepancies
  • Gather facts through interviews, searches, document/file review, and other methods

US lawyers believe the majority of legal skills can be acquired over time. Interestingly, of the top 12 litigation skills, the survey said four were necessary right out of law school. Of the top 12 transactional skills, only two were necessary right out of law school. Of the top 12 legal thinking/application skills, six were necessary right out of law school.

This raises the question of how can law firms hire a whole lawyer right out of law school? The survey respondents were asked how they would do so in the real world. The top factors they would look for were:

  • legal experience
  • recommendations
  • legal externships
  • life experience
  • experiential learning
  • participation in legal clinics.

Big firms more focused on class rank and law school attended, but otherwise most hiring factors are the same.

The takeaway lesson: if you want whole lawyers, what matters is experience – in law firms, experiential learning, externships, clinics. Food for thought for Canadian law schools, who need to adapt to provide new grads for a changing legal profession.

The full IAALS report can be found here:

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