What Skills Should New Lawyers Have?

Concept of candidates selection in modern dark background.

Once upon a time, the legal job market didn’t seem very focused on skills. Instead, whether you got a plum gig or not often depended on your GPA, whether you did law review, and how pleasing you were to interact with when you were a summer associate. Over the years, a tightening job market and a realization that grades aren’t all that matter began upping the ante as to what skills a new lawyer needed to have when they are starting out. So, what skills do current lawyers wish that new lawyers had?

There’s a think tank at the University of Denver, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), that has an initiative called “Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders.” They surveyed 24,000 lawyers in all 50 states and asked them what skills new lawyers needed. You can read the whole report here, and here are some key takeaways.

First, current lawyers don’t care nearly as much that new lawyers have top-notch legal skills as you might think. Sure, things like being good at legal research are important, but not as important as some other things.

76% of characteristics (things like integrity, work ethic, common sense, and resilience) were identified by half or more of respondents as necessary right out of law school, while just 46% of professional competencies (like arriving on time, listening attentively, and teamwork) were identified by half or more as similarly necessary. Legal skills (like legal research, issue spotting, and legal analysis) were identified by half or more of respondents as necessary right out of law school to an even lesser degree than either characteristics or professional competencies. Specifically, fewer than half of the legal skills we asked about—just 40%—were identified as necessary right out of law school.

Why are “traditional” legal skills ranked so low? Because current practitioners believe—and rightly so—that those skills can be acquired over time. Integrity and resilience are a bit tougher for one person to impart to another. What existing lawyers want is what IAALS calls a high CQ–”character quotient.” New lawyers should be well-rounded people that display a blend of what we often call soft skills—empathy, courtesy, diplomacy—and intellectual capabilities. They also need to be able to do the things expected of good employees in any job setting: Be on time. Respond to people promptly. Pay attention to detail.

One of the most useful and practical things to come out of the survey is a database where you can view results by drilling down to some particular respondent characteristics. For example: here is what female lawyers with 11-20 years of experience who work in small (2-10 people) transactional firms are looking for in new lawyers:

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You can even compare and contrast two different types of respondents. Here’s how male lawyers with 1-10 years experience in a mid-sized firm (11-50 people) focusing on litigation value those same skills:1

database2

Even if you’re a solo practitioner with years of experience under your belt, this is a very useful tool. Knowing what lawyers in your field (or your region, or with your years of experience, etc.) value can help you understand what people expect of you. Lawyers obviously tend to refer business to other attorneys of whom they think well, and it turns out that we don’t just look to traditional legal skills when we make those assessments.


  1. The screenshot only shows a few skills. The full comparison covers several dozen characteristics. 

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  • Diane Camacho

    This is a great survey. The database is easy to use and provides incredible information. It’s interesting to see that Lawyers are viewing the importance of the soft skills of each other. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  • David Bjornson

    Thanks for this survey. It really emphasizes what skills new lawyers should have.