Legal education in midst of evolution

Recognizing importance of linking traditional curriculum with core competencies required in the legal services marketplace

January 31, 2020
President’s Message By Lori McMaster

It has long been said that a core purpose of any law school is to teach students how to “think like a lawyer” by focusing upon the critical-thinking skills necessary to read, analyze and understand case law. Legal education has evolved in many ways, including in encompassing experiential learning opportunities through participation in clinics, practicums and externships. Legal education is in the midst of another evolution that recognizes the importance of linking traditional curriculum with the core competencies required in the legal services marketplace.

Innovations in legal education have recently been driven by a ground-breaking, empirical five-year research study conducted in 2011 by Marjorie Shultz, Law Professor Emerita at the University of California Berkley and Sheldon Zedeck, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at UC Berkley. Their study, entitled “Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: Broadening the Basis for Law School Admission Decisions, 36 L. & Soc. Inquiry (2011),” was funded by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), a nonprofit, membership organization composed of all ABA-accredited law schools in the United States. LSAC provides many services to its member schools, including the LSAT.

The purpose of the Schultz-Zedeck study was to develop predictors of lawyering effectiveness that could be used in law school admissions decisions. The study has also affected law school curricula and professional development programming. The Schultz-Zedeck study identified 26 factors of lawyering effectiveness, several of which have been the focus of traditional legal education models (i.e., analysis and reasoning, researching the law, oral and written communication, etc.) The study also identified additional, non-cognitive skills which are predictive of success in the legal profession, including, but not limited to, diligence, networking and business development, listening, managing one’s own work, building and developing relationships with clients and other attorneys, and the ability to see the world through the eyes of others.

Voluminous additional research and news articles have since addressed the need for legal education to adapt to an evolving legal landscape and a more competency based approach to teaching. See National Jurist, Martin Pritikin, Are Law School Curriculums Preparing Students to Succeed?, 05/08/2018. Available at:; American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, Report and Recommendations (2014); Neil Hamilton, Empirical Research on the Core Competencies Needed to Practice Law: What Do Clients, New Lawyers, and Legal Employers Tell Us? The Bar Examiner (September 2014); Michael Madison, Mary Crossley, Thomas Ross and Ann Sinsheimer, Preparing for Service: Report of the Task Force on Innovation in Legal Education (May 2014).

Faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law have been discussing the importance of emphasizing to students that the core of their law school experience should be directed to building the skills necessary to practice law effectively. Vice Dean Haider Ala Hamoudi notes that “previously, our focus had been largely upon particular classes that students should take, which usually involved a combination of classes tested on the bar exam and those in the field in which the student expected to specialize. The problem with this was twofold. First, it tended to discount the valuable experiential and other nontraditional learning opportunities we were able to give to students.

Second, it suggested, falsely, that a student needed to have substantive mastery of a given field before practicing it. Instead, we believe students should develop in law school particular skills that they can deploy to master the new field themselves, whether or not they are familiar with it prior to entering law school. This is not to say, of course, that there is no substantive legal knowledge that is imparted to students during law school that matters. Rather, it is to suggest that concomitant with recommending some set of “core” classes, more emphasis needs to be given to students to develop core skills.

These discussions lead the Pitt Law faculty to identify ten core competencies as being fundamental to the ethical and effective practice of law. The extent to which a student develops greater mastery on any subset of these competencies will depend largely on the student’s broader career goals. The core competencies are:

1. Analytical skills (fact development and analysis, legal analysis, legal research, and/or legal reasoning);
2. Problem solving skills;
3. Communication skills (written and oral);
4. Substantive and procedural law competency;
5. Professionalism and ethics (code of professional responsibility and professional values generally, including civility, accountability, honesty and integrity, and pro bono service);
6. Client interaction skills (client service, interviewing and counseling skills, etc.);
7. Diversity and inclusion competency (demonstrations of cultural competence, global awareness, and/or critical engagement with concepts involving systemic inequity);
8. Self-assessment skills (critical self-reflection, organization and time management, and/or professional identity development/maintenance);
9. Interprofessional competency (collaboration with concepts, students, and/or professionals from other disciplines); and
10. Leadership skills (collaboration, conflict resolution, team building, human management, and/or organizational management skills).

Vice Dean Hamoudi explained that Pitt Law’s “full time and adjunct faculty have mapped the courses they teach onto the competencies, noting which competencies are tested in the course, and, to the extent they are tested, whether they are introduced, significantly developed, or an area of focus.” Students and their faculty mentors will discuss which classes they should take in order to maximize their potential to master all ten competencies, with particular focus on those that are most likely to be of the greatest need in the student’s desired area of practice.

Pitt Law’s focus on the core professional competencies associated with success in the legal profession remind me of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Value Statements, which, along with the ACBA’s Mission Statement, are read out loud at every Board of Governor’s meeting. The ACBA’s Value Statements emphasize our commitment to being “an invaluable resource to the legal profession and the community by: Fostering a culture of unbiased collegiality, ethics, and professionalism; Championing equality, diversity, and inclusion in the profession; Promoting equal access to legal and other law related services; and Enhancing the success of our members through education, networking, leadership, and professional development.”

We are fortunate that our bar association and local legal educators are so well-aligned in their commitment to the professional development of our law students and attorneys. I welcome hearing your thoughts about this message, so please do contact me at or 412-648-2359.

All my best, Lori.