What do lawyers do? What do lawyers need to do well in order to succeed? These are pretty key questions for legal educators, I think.
The amazing thing is, we know far too little about what lawyers do. In her foreword to the Kindle edition of John Flood’s look at the day to day life of a mid-sized Chicago law firm, What Do Lawyers Do: An Ethnography of a Corporate Law Firm, Lynn Mather notes that the question has “not been systematically explored.”
The lack of information astounds all the more when you stop to think about how large an industry law is. Back when Michael Kelly wrote Lives of the Lawyers Revisited, he noted that law was already a 150 billion dollar a year industry in the US alone, and I don’t think the figures he relied on were able to include all the places lawyers work. By my rough reckoning, just US legal education, which aims to prepare law students for whatever it is lawyers do, takes in somewhere between $1 billion and $3 billion annually in tuition alone.
Flood’s look at a midsize Chicago firm in the 1980s provides some of the answer. As he concludes, “In the practice of law one finds very little law.” What lawyers do instead, it seems, is talk, and mostly to each other. Flood’s ethnographic look, taken by sitting quietly amidst practicing lawyers as if he were investigating an Amazonian tribe with access to somewhat better restaurants, makes clear that as lawyers progress through their careers legal research and writing becomes less and less important.
Recently, Scott Fruehwald of the Legal Skills Profs Blog directed me in a comment here to an article by Neil Hamilton that looks at lawyer competencies. Law firm human resources departments, like human resources departments everywhere, have started using competency matrices in staff reviews. Hamilton looks at the forms used by 14 firms in Minnesota and then combines those with earlier studies going back decades to see what people think lawyers ought to be good at. He argues, in short, that law schools should move to a competency oriented curriculum based on what employers value, with a well-developed sense of professional identity as the envelope containing the individual competencies.
It’s difficult if not impossible to force rank the competencies, because different firms and different studies use different terms to describe similar or overlapping competencies, but a look at some of the most frequently used competencies gives sufficient sense of what firms think young to early-mid-career lawyers should achieve.