This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Winter 2017-2018 (Vol. 86, No. 4), pp 30–35.

By Molly M. Brummond

Illustration of brain with gears, magnifying glass, thought windows, and more elements to portray tasks and skills

What makes a successful lawyer? How do we educate students in a way that creates well-rounded, effective lawyers? What are the crucial professional skills needed for effective lawyering beyond the analytical and reasoning skills typically implied in the term of art “thinking like a lawyer”? How can co-curricular offerings foster the development of those essential skills?

These are the questions that we considered at the University of Nebraska College of Law in the summer of 2013—Dean Richard Moberly (then associate dean for faculty) considering them in the context of Nebraska Law’s curriculum, and I in the context of Nebraska Law’s student organizations, competitions, and programming, which I oversee. Our answers to these questions were the basis for an innovative new program launched in the fall of 2014: Nebraska Law’s Build Your Character program.

The Premise of the Build Your Character Program

The Build Your Character (BYC) program is founded on the basic belief that lawyers are leaders who are called upon to do much more than reason their way through a problem to a resolution. Lawyers lead clients through complex and often difficult circumstances. They lead in government as governors, mayors, and members of Congress and city councils. They are policy makers, lobbyists, legislative aides, and chiefs of staff. Lawyers are called on to lead at the highest levels of business. They are CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and general counsel. Lawyers are leaders in their communities through service on community boards and as nonprofit executives. They serve on school boards and on governing bodies of churches. This call to leadership certainly benefits from the analytical and critical-thinking skills that lawyers bring to the table, but these skills alone are not enough to effectively lead.

[B]y empowering students to take charge of their professional skills development, the program is intended to equip students with the language to articulate their professional skills development to potential employers, thereby providing them with a valuable toolkit as they prepare to embark on their careers.

The BYC program acknowledges that a lawyer’s duties go far beyond being able to analyze a problem and reason a way to a conclusion. Being a lawyer requires thinking through an immense workload and planning a strategic and efficient method of dealing with it. It means approaching a negotiation far more interested in listening and questioning than in arguing. The BYC program promotes the notion that the best lawyers have a broad range of other professional skills at which they excel. They are able to listen, negotiate, influence, build a list of clients, develop excellent relationships within their field, and successfully manage a heavy workload, just to name a few.

Nebraska Law’s BYC program articulates the essential professional skills it expects students to develop and systematically identifies opportunities both inside and outside the classroom where students can learn these skills. Additionally, by empowering students to take charge of their professional skills development, the program is intended to equip students with the language to articulate their professional skills development to potential employers, thereby providing them with a valuable toolkit as they prepare to embark on their careers.

Identifying the Essential Lawyering Skills

How did we determine the essential professional skills on which the BYC program is built? We began by surveying approximately 100 of our alumni in varying types of careers to ask them what made them successful and what made the lawyers they managed most effective. The answers included traditional skills that one thinks of as essential to good lawyering, like superior writing skills and a keen analytical ability. But the skill that was identified as the most important by nearly all those surveyed was the ability to listen. The second most important skill identified was the ability to think creatively.

As it turned out, the list of essential skills we derived from our survey mirrored those in a study conducted in 2003 by University of California–Berkeley professors Marjorie M. Schultz and Sheldon Zedeck.1 The study, whose ultimate goal was to determine whether there were ways to evaluate law school candidates beyond the Law School Admission Test, sought to identify characteristics common to effective or successful lawyers. The findings, gleaned from interviews with people from stakeholder groups associated with Berkeley Law, and focus groups and online surveys with school alumni, identified 26 “effectiveness factors,” which were then organized under 8 umbrella categories.

After reviewing the data from our alumni surveys and considering the Schultz and Zedeck findings, we used the Schultz and Zedeck outline as a starting point, changed a few terms, added the skill Cultural Competency to reflect the essential need to understand the cultural background of the people with whom a lawyer must interact, and came up with a list of 27 skills arranged under 8 umbrella categories.

The BYC Skills and Categories

Visual info graphic of Skills and Categories, see list following graphic for details

Intellectual & Cognitive

  • Analysis & Reasoning
  • Creativity & Innovation
  • Problem Solving
  • Practical Judgment

Research & Information Gathering

  • Researching the Law
  • Fact-Finding
  • Questioning & Interviewing

Communications

  • Influencing & Advocating
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening

Planning & Organizing

  • Strategic Planning
  • Organizing & Managing Work Flow (Self)
  • Organizing & Managing Work Flow (Others)

Conflict Resolution

  • Negotiation
  • Empathy

Client & Business Relations

  • Networking & Business Development
  • Providing Advice & Counsel

Working with Others

  • Developing Relationships in the Legal Field
  • Evaluation, Development & Mentoring
  • Cultural Competency

Identity

  • Passion & Engagement
  • Diligence
  • Integrity & Honesty
  • Stress Management
  • Community Involvement
  • Self-Development

Source: Categories graphics from University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nebraska College of Law, Build Your Character, https://law.unl.edu/build-your-character/.

Building the BYC Program Around the Skills

In order to create a program that promoted each of these skills, we then began the intensive process of examining all the programs and co-curricular offerings available through the school and identifying what skills were developed through the student’s participation in these various offerings. Once that phase was complete, the focus shifted to introducing the BYC concept to students, including teaching them how to assess and keep track of their individual professional skills development needs. This assessment may be done by the student or in consultation with a faculty member, administrator, or other mentor. Ultimately, the goal is for each student to reflect on his or her strengths, past professional and educational experiences, and career goals to determine what type of skills development is most needed.

Upon the launch of the BYC program in the fall of 2014, we started communicating with students about the specific opportunities available to them for professional skills development through participation in activities beyond the credit curriculum. For example, if a student participated in a moot court competition, the student would develop skills in the Research & Information Gathering, Communications, and Planning & Organizing categories. Specifically, students who participated in moot court practiced the following skills: Researching the Law, Influencing & Advocating, Speaking, Writing, and Strategic Planning. If a student participated in the client counseling competition, the student would develop skills in the Working with Others, Client & Business Relations, and Communications categories. Most likely those skills included Cultural Competency, Providing Advice & Counsel, Developing Relationships in the Legal Field, and Listening. All activities offered outside the classroom during the 2014–2015 academic year were tagged with these umbrella categories and associated skills so that students could clearly see the professional skills development they could expect to gain from participation in those activities.

The College of Law also added programming to specifically address BYC skills. For example, the College’s clinical professors led a workshop about creative lawyering. The first-year legal research and writing course was changed to include classes that addressed foundational legal skills such as active listening. In addition, the College began to provide specific programming that taught cultural competency skills. That year, Inclusive Communities, an organization from Omaha, Nebraska, led workshops on cultural identity for students.

Ultimately, it was during this year that the College of Law worked to fill gaps in skills development programming and began to encourage students to think critically about the skills development opportunities that existed both inside and outside the classroom.

Involving Students in Their Professional Development

We encouraged students to take ownership of their professional skills development by tracking the experiences in which they were participating. Students were provided with “passports” on which they checked off a box each time they participated in an activity that was tagged with a particular umbrella category and associated skill(s). At the time, the goal of BYC was twofold. First, we wanted to more explicitly communicate to students the value of co-curricular programming in their professional skills development. Second, we wanted to arm students with an articulate way to think about their professional skills development and communicate it to potential employers.

It’s important to note that BYC intentionally places the burden on the student to determine the professional skills the student needs to develop. The decision to do so was made after much debate about whether to recommend completion of a certain number of activities in order to demonstrate proficiency in a particular skill. Ultimately, we decided against that route because it felt too prescriptive and failed to take into account a student’s individual strengths and past experiences. For instance, if a student came to law school having spent the five prior years as a social worker, that student likely had a good start on developing listening and empathy skills, and his or her time would be better spent developing other professional skills.

The Evolution of the BYC Program

Fine-Tuning the Skills Tagging

In the second year of the program, BYC evolved in two important ways. First, the reins were tightened on what learning experiences were tagged with BYC skills. In the first year, most activities were tagged. Ultimately, this approach overwhelmed students and diluted the message. To create a stricter standard, we established two criteria for tagging an activity. First, the activity was evaluated to determine whether it taught a professional skill identified in BYC. For instance, a lecture on the ins and outs of negotiating a contract would qualify and be tagged with the Negotiation skill. If the event did not pass this threshold, it was evaluated to see whether it allowed students to practice a BYC skill. For example, a student participating in a moot court competition practices the skills of Researching the Law, Writing, and Influencing & Advocating, so that activity would be tagged accordingly. Under this new standard, the number of events that were tagged was not necessarily reduced, but the number of skills with which those events were tagged was reduced. For instance, an endowed lecture was no longer tagged with the skill of listening unless the lecture either was on that topic or provided a specific opportunity to practice the skill.

Developing the BYC App

The second way in which BYC evolved during its second year was motivated by our desire to improve communication with students about BYC, at that time achieved via e-mail, and to replace the “passports” with a better tool for students to use in tracking their professional skills development. We began working with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, a program focused on software engineering and design, to develop a mobile and web-based app that could address both of these goals. The process of developing the app also provided us with an opportunity to begin working with the Nebraska Law faculty to tag their courses with BYC categories and skills. (Until this time, the tagging process had been limited to co-curricular learning experiences simply due to timing. Recall that the initial tagging of co-curricular opportunities took place over the summer. Faculty members were not on campus and, therefore, tagging of courses was not possible.) Building the app and working with faculty members to tag their coursework took approximately one year to complete.

The BYC Mobile App

screen shots of mobile app

Source: University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nebraska College of Law, Build Your Character, https://law.unl.edu/build-your-character/.

Launching the BYC app, and thereby giving students a better method with which to track their professional skills development, was the major advance in the BYC program during its third year. Students subscribe to skills they want to focus on developing, receive notifications when programming is added that matches the skills they are seeking to develop, and log their participation in activities through the app. Building a record of the activities in which they’ve participated not only allows students to reflect on their professional skills development but also equips them with language they can use to differentiate themselves from other job candidates when seeking employment.

Launching the Build Your Character Signature Programs

In addition to launching the BYC app in the 2016–2017 academic year, we added monthly Build Your Character signature programs. These programs bring in nationally known experts to teach specific professional skills. For instance, Jon Kropp, a Harvard-educated lawyer, mindfulness expert, and founder of Mindfulness for Lawyers, led a workshop focused on teaching law students stress management tools. Dr. Arin Reeves, a leading researcher, author, and adviser in the fields of leadership and inclusion, presented a lecture on inclusion and diversity based on her book The Next IQ: The Next Level of Intelligence for 21st Century Leaders. Sheila Heen, a member of the Harvard Negotiation Project (a project at Harvard Law School that seeks to improve the theory and practice of conflict resolution and negotiation) and a lecturer at Harvard Law School, led workshops on giving and receiving feedback. Students attending these programs would have developed skills in the Identity (Stress Management) and Working with Others (Cultural Competency and Evaluation, Development & Mentoring) categories.

Tailoring the Program to Each Stage of a Student’s Education

As we find ourselves in the middle of BYC’s fourth year, we continue to evaluate and adjust the program. This evaluation includes looking at app usage, attendance at programming, and the numbers of students participating in competitions, and reviewing general feedback provided by students and faculty. One thing we have learned over the last three years is that one size does not fit all. For instance, first-year students need to focus on developing the core Intellectual & Cognitive, Research & Information Gathering, and Planning & Organizing skills. Second-year students, who have ideally established a solid foundation in those skills, should continue to build upon those skills while also expanding their participation in skills-based courses, competitions, and student organizations. Third-year students are ready to begin applying all they have learned by taking clinics; they also need to start honing skills in the Client & Business Relations and Working with Others categories—skills that will be put to use almost immediately upon entering the workforce.

Because of these differing needs, BYC programming is now more tailored to the student’s progress through law school. Prior to this year, 1Ls received professional development training through a foundational legal skills course and by opting into various programming. This year, 1Ls may still opt into programming but are encouraged to focus on those professional skills taught specifically through the Academic Success programming. This programming consists of sessions designed to help first-year students acquire the essential skills required to be successful law students and, ultimately, successful lawyers. 2Ls have the opportunity to take the dean’s BYC Leadership Development class, which is specifically designed to help develop skills like Listening, Empathy, Self-Development, and the skills in the Working with Others category. 3Ls attend monthly meetings that bring in experts and alumni to teach professional skills based upon their experiences in the workforce and to help the 3Ls build their professional networks. These 2L- and 3L-specific opportunities are in addition to the co-curricular opportunities that still exist outside the classroom. All of these efforts provide BYC skill-building opportunities that are timely and relevant to each stage of a student’s legal education.

Moving Forward

We continue to evaluate and make improvements to the BYC program, including enhancements to the BYC app, now in its second academic year. Admittedly, the integration of BYC into the culture of Nebraska Law has been slow. Although faculty members have tagged their courses, and several of them have integrated BYC into their syllabi and added practical skills opportunities to their classes, anecdotal evidence suggests that students may not see how all the curricular and co-­curricular experiences work together to boost their professional skills development. These are areas we will focus on as we integrate what we’ve learned through the process of implementing BYC and move forward to optimize its use as an important framework to communicate to students what it means to be an effective, well-rounded lawyer.

Beyond its function as a tool to communicate to students the skills they will need in their careers, however, BYC equips students with a systematic method to develop those skills through the curriculum and programming offered at Nebraska Law. In empowering students to create an educational experience that is richer, more varied, and more holistic, we believe that students who take advantage of all that is offered through the BYC program will enter the profession well on their way to becoming effective, well-rounded lawyers.

Note

    1. Marjorie M. Schultz and Sheldon Zedeck, “Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: A New Assessment for Use in Law School Admission Decisions,” CELS 2009 4th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper (July 31, 2009). Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=1442118 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1442118.(Go back)

Molly Brummond

Molly M. Brummond is Assistant Dean for Student & Alumni Relations at the University of Nebraska College of Law.

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