Tough Topics Challenging Office Conversations

Beyond the Bar Exam: Competence Frameworks for Associate Development

You’ve probably heard about the tidal wave of anger and frustration besieging the bar exam lately. Accusations that the exam is outdated, unvalidated, irrelevant to practice competence, systemically racist and sexist, and  callously administered seem to come faster and more furiously each year. The National Conference of Bar Examiners plans a  revamped exam for 2026, but for the exam’s growing ranks of critics, the changes seem too little and will arrive too late.

Jordan Furlong

Alternatives to the bar exam already exist, however — in Wisconsin, which grants licenses to graduates of in-state law schools through “ diploma privilege,” and in New Hampshire, which exempts from the bar exam graduates of the skills-oriented Daniel Webster Honors Program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. In addition, Oregon is closing in on two new nonexam pathways to licensure, one involving extensive clinical practice in law school and the other requiring a period of supervised practice in a law office.

However, what’s missing from both the bar exam and its admirable alternatives is a precise delineation of what qualifies a person for law licensure. What knowledge, skills, attributes and experiences — that is to say, which competencies — should a candidate demonstrably possess before they should be allowed to become a lawyer?

For the most part, this question has gone unasked in the American legal system. The ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar made good progress in this direction in 2015 when it told law schools to ensure their graduates achieve various “learning outcomes,” including competency in knowledge of substantive and procedural law, legal analysis and reasoning, ethical responsibilities, problem-solving, communication and other professional skills.

The majority of U.S. law schools have obeyed this directive, albeit most in very broad and general terms. But there is still no official, detailed framework of American lawyer competencies — or at least, not in the lawyer licensing regulatory system. American law firms, however, tuned in long ago to the importance and usefulness of lawyer competencies in associate development.


Competence frameworks for law firm associates identify the wide range of knowledge, skills and attributes that a firm expects of its associates, as well as the degree of proficiency the associates ought to possess at different stages of their development. When an associate has demonstrated the required proficiency at one stage, the associate then graduates to the next competence level, a move often accompanied by an increase in salary and responsibilities.

“Extensive academic research and deep dissatisfaction with the present system of American lawyer licensing could lead the United States to adopt competency-based lawyer licensing sooner than anyone expects.”

Examples of associate competence frameworks can be found at myriad firms, ranging from Stoel Rives and Sullivan & Worcester all the way to global giants like Clyde & Co. and Baker McKenzie. These systems provide structure, guidance and accountability to both associates eager to learn the ropes of practice and partners looking to accelerate the development of the firm’s future leaders.

If your law firm doesn’t have a competence framework to anchor its associate advancement system, it’s not too late to develop one. There is no shortage of models to study. Professional development experts can help by reviewing the latest studies on competence learning for professionals and by interviewing your partners and senior associates to identify critical lawyer competencies, the stages at which a lawyer is expected to develop them, and the best ways in which these competencies can be learned and practiced. (This approach can be applied to allied legal professionals, too.)

The groundwork for lawyer licensing competence profiles has already been laid in the United States, in particular through the work of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and its “ Building a Better Bar: The Twelve Building Blocks of Minimum Competence” report, as well as the “ Roadmap for Employment” developed by the Holloran Center at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Consulting these two projects, each developed in conjunction with law firms and other lawyer employers, can provide a powerful supplement to your firm’s own internal assessment of the appropriate stages of associate competence.

The trend lines in this area are starting to rapidly converge. Extensive academic research and deep dissatisfaction with the present system of American lawyer licensing could lead the United States to adopt competency-based lawyer licensing sooner than anyone expects. Your firm will benefit by being aware — and staying ahead— of these remarkable advances in lawyer development.