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Defining Competence in Legal Practice: The Evaluation of Lawyers in Large Firms and Organizations

Baird, Leonard L.; Carlson, Alfred B.; Powell, Ramon J.; Reilly, Richard R.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Report
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Subject/Key Words:
National Science Foundation (NSF), Evaluation Criteria, Lawyers, Professional Occupations, Surveys


This study was designed to answer three questions: (1) What are the aspects of lawyers' performance that are assessed in firms and organizations? (2) How are they assessed? (3) What do the answers to the first two questions tell us about the legal profession? To answer these questions, senior attorneys in organizations employing substantial numbers of lawyers were surveyed. These lawyers were thought to be the most likely to have carefully considered and defined critical components of competence in designing and using systems for evaluating the performance of lawyers in their organizations. Data on factors considered in evaluation and evaluation procedures were gathered from questionnaires and requests for documents addressed to a sample of the nations's largest law firms, corporations, and goverment agencies at federal, state, and local levels. Interviews were held with a number of them to explore the subject in more depth. An important initial finding was that a great deal more formal and systematic evaluation of lawyer performance was taking place in those organizations than was expected from reviews of the legal and social science literature—a large majority of the respondents had a formal method for assessment of attorney performance. The most surprising result was the extent of agreement among lawyers in very diverse settings on the relative importance of various evaluation factors. The factors were also emphasized in the literature about evaluation of lawyer's performance. Overall, the results suggest that there are skills and characteristics that are generally considered important to competent practice, with relatively few variations related to practice setting, region, type of practice, and firm size. These skills and characteristics were assessed by a variety of methods, but almost always with care and sophistication. One implication of this finding is that if practical and valid measures of the factors can be developed they may be relevant to a wide range of practice situations. Irrespective of the development of new measures, the existence of fairly sophisticated appraisals of lawyer performance in many large organizations makes it possible to begin research on the profession that necessitates such measures that was not previously thought to be feasible.

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