The University of St. Thomas

May 2nd, 2011


Published on: Monday, May 2nd, 2011

© Professor Neil Hamilton
Published April 18, 2011 in Minnesota Lawyer

April 11 draft

A July 2009 survey of U.S. law firms reported that in response to market changes, almost seventy-five percent of the firms had or were planning to develop a competency-model approach to talent management.  This article will explore the legal market forces driving change toward a “new normal,” and how competency models respond to these market forces.

Market Forces Driving Change Towards a “New Normal”

Clients (particularly in-house lawyers as clients with respect to outside counsel) are pressuring lawyers for enhanced value for legal services with modest if any price increases.  Sophisticated users also often move to unbundle or segment legal work to create more competition for the work. For example, legal outsourcing to India or other countries continues to increase for commodity work like e-discovery, document review, and due diligence work.  The internet increasingly provides people with access to more and more information about the law creating both more pro se efforts to resolve problems as well as more knowledgeable purchasers of legal services.

The core concepts for lawyers to embrace in this new normal market are efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and clear value for the client.  With these core concepts in mind, many firms are pro-actively rethinking their business model, and one of the pro-active strategies is talent management using competency models.

Competency Models to Increase Efficiency, Cost Effectiveness and Value for the Client

Competency models are defined in an excellent recent book, The Art and Science of Strategic Talent Management in Law Firms (West, 2010).  Susan Manch and Terri Mottershead (both consultants on attorney talent management) explain that a competency-based approach is different from standard law firm performance management because the competency model gives a specific definition of performance expectations using behavioral language to describe each needed capacity or skill.  They continue,

“A competency-based approach to talent development involves identifying the characteristics of a firm’s most highly successful lawyers and using those characteristics to anchor a firm’s talent management strategy. To briefly summarize, competency frameworks are guided by the philosophy that to most effectively aid associates’ development, associates should be given a clear grouping of competencies to master. In a competency model, performance standards are observable behaviors explicitly described and shown as evolving in complexity across three or four or five levels of experience. In a competency-based framework, for example, mentoring programs would be designed to offer different types/levels of support to lawyers in each level of the path to mastery of the core competencies.”

Manch presents a sample of what a competency framework might look like in a typical firm. The author identifies four core competencies for the firm listed at the top of the framework and then lists the performance factors for each core competency.

Manch’s Sample Competency Framework


Client Orientation


Career Commitment

Oral Communication WritingStrategic thinking Technical expertise Adding value Project managementService and quality orientation Initiative Self awareness Relationship building Performance management Team building and inclusion Practice development Drive to learn and improveFirm and community citizenship Ethics and integrity

Other Competency Models

Indiana professor Bill Henderson (2009), Berkeley professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck (2008), and South Carolina professor Roy Stuckey (2007) have each done an empirical study to identify the most important core competencies of effective lawyering.  A synthesis of the three studies yields the following core competencies listed on top with the performance factors listed below.

Competency Framework:
Synthesis of Three National Studies

Critical Thinking and Judgment

Service Orientation with Clients

Working with Others


Virtues and Dispositions

Core understanding of the law Analysis and reasoning Pragmatic problem solving Strategic thinking Creativity and innovation Client rapport and strong relationships Client commitment Demonstrated value to clientResponsiveness Effective teamwork Effective planning and organization of work Self –Assurance Listening  Persuasive speaking, writing and negotiation Proactive initiative Integrity and honesty Self-awareness and reflection Commitment to self-development toward excellenceResilience and perseverance

Benefits of a Competency Model

Manch and Mottershead explain that a competency model is useful for both associates and partners. A competency model makes transparent what it takes to be effective and successful in the firm. Associates get a roadmap of competencies necessary at each stage of their development. The partners individually and the firm as a whole clarify what is important for recognition, advancement, and compensation.

Law schools should also undertake to articulate a competency model for the students. Law students need a roadmap to become effective lawyers. Each student can develop a portfolio showing his or her development of specific competencies. This will help students in their search for employment.


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