By: Jacob Gershman
You can be a sharp writer and a nimble researcher who is skilled at analyzing cases.
But for law school graduates entering the workforce, it’s the softer skills, like work ethic, collegiality and a sense of individual responsibility, that really impress legal employers, according to a new study.
University of Dayton School of Law researchers conducted focus with legal employers to find out what they expect from new law school graduates.
Dayton law professor Susan Wawrose said researchers had thought that the attorneys would focus mostly on the need for basic practical skills, like writing, analysis and research. But comments on soft skills — defined as “personal qualities, habits, attitudes and social graces that make someone a good employee” — tended to dominate the responses.
“The most surprising outcome of our research was the primary importance employers placed on the ‘intra- and interpersonal (socio-emotional)’—soft skills—needed for workplace success,” writes Ms. Wawrose, who authored a report on the study appearing in the Ohio Northern University Law Review.
The researchers interviewed 19 attorneys in the Dayton area who are “actual or potential employers” of graduates from the law school. Most were employed at law firms of varying size. Several others worked as in-house counsel, as an assistant federal public defender, or for legal aid.
The focus group participants said ideal job applicants have a strong work ethic, can work independently without excessive “hand holding,” and would bring a positive attitude to the workplace.
One attorney griped about new hires who “come in . . . [with] this expectation that we’ll sit down and kind of spoon feed them.” Others agreed that some attorneys fresh out of school think “they have a law school degree so they’re entitled to rise up and become partner.”
Other comments suggested that law schools put more of an emphasis on teaching research:
Employers, particularly those with more years in practice, rely on new attorneys to be research experts. The employers in our focus groups have high expectations when it comes to new hires’ research skills, i.e., “[t]hey should be able to adequately and effectively find everything that’s up to the minute.”
Being a research expert also means knowing how to scour books, not just websites, the paper said. “Statutes, treatises and encyclopedias, and desk books are the sources employers still use in paper form. For this reason, new attorneys may want to be familiar with these paper sources,” writes Ms. Wawrose.
The employers also observed that while some new hires are good at cranking out a “full-blown research memo,” the same ones stumble on shorter assignments:
The purpose and audience of the assignment are the key. “[T]hey need to be very cognizant of who their audience is.” Is the document for a client? And, which client? Is it the one who is “very busy” and “want[s] to know, ‘boom,’ ‘what’s the answer[?]’” Or, is it the client who is “all into the details” and will feel “nervous if you don’t give them all the specifics.”