Originally published in the Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report (Law Journal Newsletters), January 2005

When law firms recruit, train, evaluate and promote lawyers, what ideal do they have in mind?  What model of lawyer performance are they pursuing:  what balance of knowledge, skills and capabilities, work management, ethics, character and commitment, client service and business development?  Attempting to put into words our notion of successful performance is a pre-requisite to consistency in how we recruit, train, evaluate and promote.  It would also appear to be a pre-requisite to fairness and effectiveness in setting expectations among new lawyers and helping them achieve those expectations.

Codifying the associate competencies set out below was a joint effort at my firm.  The effort was spearheaded by three groups:  the Chief Organization Development Officer and Professional Personnel Committee (jointly in charge of evaluation, promotion and compensation), Professional Development (in charge of lawyer orientation and training) and the Recruiting Committee and related staff.  The working group circulated drafts and solicited comments from dozens of partners and associates over a period of nearly a year.

When we set out to codify associate competencies, we made some crucial decisions up front.  First, we decided to articulate the competencies we viewed as essential to superior performance rather than attempting to lay out minimum performance standards.

Second, we opted for articulation of competencies in broad terms (i.e., general behaviors, aptitudes and attitudes) rather than getting bogged down in specific tasks or experiences (e.g., taken five depositions, second-chaired two IPOs).  Consequently, we produced a set of associate competencies that defined success for all types of lawyers in one document, and that document could be used by specific practice groups to base a more narrow task-and-experience checklist.  We divided associate development into three levels:  Years 1 and 2, Years 3, 4 and 5 and Years 6 and Up.  Competencies in each level are described in terms of five criteria:  Knowledge, Skills and Capabilities, Work Mangement, Character and Commitment, and Client Service and Business Development.  Competencies in each category build on themselves as you advance through levels one to three.  For example:  Work Management in the first level focuses on the associate doing his or her own work in an efficient and timely manner.  In the second and third levels, the associate develops the ability to manage the work of others in addition to his or her own work, moving in the direction of managing a team of lawyers and staff.

Third,  although the basic competencies were stated at a relatively high level of abstraction, they are followed by illustrative behaviors indicating strengths or need for additional development.  These concrete behaviors are not intended to illustrate comprehensively the meaning of the more abstract competencies, but instead to create a flash of recognition and understanding.

The associate competencies were rolled out to partners and associates in a series of meetings and presentations held in various firm offices over several months.  We stressed that promulgation of the competencies was not intended to change our standards for successful performance, but simply to make them clearer to everyone involved.  Associates generally welcomed the articulation of competencies.  Since roll-out, Recruiting has used the competencies to rewrite parts of our recruiting manual, especially those parts suggesting areas of questioning for interviewers relevant to the EQ-type competencies included in our model.  Associate evaluation forms are also in the process of revision to follow the outline and content of the competencies.  Finally, our larger practice groups have assigned partners to work through the competencies with a view to assessing the adequacy of our current substantive and skills training programs and to work with Professional Development to make necessary modifications.  Discussion of the competencies has also become an important, perennial part of our new associate orientation each year.

It is too early to measure the full impact that articulation of associate competencies will have on coordination and consistency in recruiting, training, evaluation and promotion.  The cooperative effort required to create the competencies and build consensus around them among partners and associates has, however, already contributed significantly to a common understanding of who we are recruiting, training, evaluating and promoting.  And that is an important start.

*   *   *

Associate Competencies Model
(Model for Superior Performance)


KNOWLEDGE: Associate has solid grasp of basic legal concepts. Associate demonstrates intellectual curiosity and a commitment to understanding and mastering his or her practice area. Associate takes ownership of assignments and thoroughly researches and retains legal concepts.

SKILLS AND CAPABILITIES: Associate demonstrates strong basic skills in written and oral communication, legal and logical analysis, data gathering, organization, attention to detail, problem solving, and adherence to applicable rules of practice. Associate seeks out and participates in formal training and work opportunities to improve skills.

WORK MANAGEMENT: Associate demonstrates strong work management skills, including time entry, time management, planning, organization, and timely delivery of work product. 

CHARACTER AND COMMITMENT:  Associate demonstrates ethical integrity, dependability, self-motivation, emotional intelligence (accurately reading and responding to cultural, social and interpersonal situations) and a strong work ethic.  He or she shows sound judgment. Associate initiates and maintains strong, respectful relationships in the workplace, seeks feedback and works effectively as part of a team.  Associate shows concern for the well-being of the firm.

CLIENT SERVICE AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT:  Associate initiates and builds solid working relationships with senior associates and partners and wins their respect by consistently producing high-quality work. Associate demonstrates interest in business and financial arrangements with clients. Associate cultivates external relationship with classmates, peers and friends and has begun to build a network.

Behavior indicating strengths

  • Invests time to learn relevant law. Asks informed questions.
  • Produces written work that a partner can send to a client or submit to the court with limited editing or re-writing.
  • Inspires confidence in partners and senior associates that work will be delivered when promised.
  • Seeks work from a wide range of partners in practice area.
  • Submits timesheets daily.
  • Exhibits curiosity and learns about other practice areas and offices of the firm.
  • Protects the confidentiality of client and firm information.
  • Thinks ahead.
  • Takes on tough assignments on short notice.
  • Responds appropriately to constructive criticism.

Behavior indicating development needed

  • Counts on others to know the law.
  • Produces written work that a partner must substantially re-write before sending to a client or submitting to the court.
  • Is overly self-protective in accepting work assignments.
  • Works only with one partner. Avoids contact with other co-workers or partners who are a natural source of work.
  • Does not participate in formal training programs.

ASSOCIATES LEVEL TWO (years 3, 4, 5)

KNOWLEDGE: Associate continues to build on competencies in Level One, developing a thorough understanding of the legal concepts and bodies of law in his or her practice area. Associate establishes a reputation as the go-to person in certain content areas.

SKILLS AND CAPABILITIES:  Associate refines the basic skills described in Level One and exhibits strong practice skills, including (depending on practice area): oral and written advocacy; contract drafting; disclosure drafting; analyzing and communicating technical matters; taking or defending depositions; managing other discovery; overseeing due diligence reviews; and leading complex business transactions with partner oversight.  Associate shows an ability to take the lead and listen effectively in meetings, negotiations and other group settings. He or she continues to actively pursue improvement through formal training and work opportunities.

WORK MANAGEMENT: Associate continues to build on the competencies in Level One, showing strong time management skills and  a beginning ability to manage the work of other junior lawyers and legal assistants. 

CHARACTER AND COMMITMENT:  Associate continues to build on the competencies in Level One. Associate has the confidence of partners not only for his or her knowledge, skills and capabilities, but for judging accurately when to seek out guidance and oversight from the partner.  He or she contributes to the community and profession through active involvement in Bar, business and other community organizations. Associate shows increasing identification with and interest in Dorsey’s future, and a willingness to commit to the success of the firm.

CLIENT SERVICE AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT:  Associate builds on Level One competencies regarding client satisfaction through high-quality work and responsiveness to client needs.  Clients indicate their trust in this associate by contacting him or her—and assigning new projects—directly, rather than through the billing attorney. Associate continues to expand his or her network of relationships with senior associates and partners, actively markets within the firm, and supports practice group external marketing efforts.  Associate continues to build an external network by cultivating community and professional contacts.

Behavior indicating strengths

  • Manages complex business transactions and litigation with partner oversight.
  • Manages simpler business transactions and litigation, or segments of more complex transactions or litigation (e.g., discovery, due diligence review), with only minimal partner supervision.
  • Takes responsibility for technical analysis and compliance projects in area of expertise.
  • Produces written work that a partner can send to a client or submit to the court with little or no editing or re-writing.
  • Clients expressly ask to work with the associate.
  • Teaches or co-teaches formal training programs in areas of growing expertise.
  • Helps to plan and implement group initiatives such as marketing, training, mentoring, knowledge management or social events.
  • Exhibits increased awareness of capabilities and people in other practice groups and offices.
  • Regularly makes judgments and takes responsibility for outcomes.

Behavior indicating development needed

  • Does not assume team leadership of junior lawyers and legal assistants.
  • Regularly produces written work that must be substantially edited before being sent to a client or the court.
  • Refuses to accept simultaneous multiple work assignments.
  • Does not develop personal relationships and visibility outside the firm. Functions in relative isolation from others in the firm. Receives all work assignments from firm lawyers, because direct client contacts and relationships are not developing.
  • Does not participate in formal training programs.
  • Does not take advantage of professional growth opportunities.
  • When serving clients, places individual self-interest over the best interests of the firm and its client.

ASSOCIATES LEVEL THREE (years 6 and beyond)

KNOWLEDGE:  Associate continues to build on the competencies in previous levels, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of important legal concepts and mastery of an area of law that is valuable to firm clients. Associate has established a reputation as an expert in certain concepts and bodies of law. 

SKILLS AND CAPABILITIES:  Associate solidly and consistently performs most of the complex legal tasks noted in previous levels. Associate demonstrates an ability and willingness to first-chair a contested proceeding or complex litigation; or to lead and manage a complex business transaction; or to respond independently to complex client needs in technical areas.

WORK MANAGEMENT:  Associate builds on the competencies described in previous levels, routinely managing the work of others and balancing multiple and competing requests for work.

CHARACTER AND COMMITMENT:  Associate consistently demonstrates leadership and good judgment.  He or she actively participates in community service or pro bono work.  Associate invests significantly in the firm by, for example, serving on committees, participating in lawyer recruiting, or teaching Dorsey U courses. Associate works cooperatively with other Dorsey lawyers and staff and willingly shares information, knowledge and client contacts for the good of the firm.

CLIENT SERVICE AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT:  Associate builds on the competencies described in previous levels, taking increasing leadership in client service and business development. Associate regularly receives work assignments involving significant and complex matters directly from clients.  Associate has established one or more relationships with firm clients in which he or she functions as the client’s relationship lawyer.

Behaviors indicating strengths

  • Oversees complex business matters or litigation with little or no partner oversight.
  • Oversees junior lawyers who are engaged in simpler business transactions or litigation.
  • Exhibits sound judgment and integrity in ethics and business decisions. Is sensitive to business conflicts.
  • Always produces written work of the highest quality.
  • Attracts work to the firm from existing clients. Engages in effective marketing activities.
  • Pursues outside speaking opportunities or other activities to enhance professional reputation.
  • Teaches formal training sessions in the firm and contributes materials to the firm’s knowledge management systems.
  • Maintains active communication with anetwork of other professionals.

Behavior indicating development needed

  • Does not share knowledge or mentor others.
  • Does not “give back” to the firm and the community.
  • Does not delegate work to other timekeepers.
  • Does not have the confidence of clients.
  • Has not established personal visibility and professional stature outside the firm or with other practice areas within the firm.