The best learning is experience. When combined with the right intention, reflection, and assessment, there is no substitute for learning by doing. It is, admittedly, one of the reasons I compulsively volunteer. Some of my greatest learning experiences in the past decade have come through the volunteer opportunities offered by ACLEA (the international Association for Continuing Legal Education), including work on ACLEA’s core competencies project.
Core competencies of CLE professionals
I had the tremendous privilege of serving on ACLEA’s Executive Committee from 2010 to 2016. One of the challenges we were facing was how to serve a diverse membership working in a rapidly-changing legal practice context. To achieve this, we wanted a tool to assist us in planning our own educational offerings—a curriculum—as well as something that continuing legal education (CLE) providers could use for their own talent management.
To this end, we embarked on the daunting task of trying to identify the core competencies needed by CLE professionals. In January 2013, the ACLEA Executive Committee appointed a special committee to carry out this action plan. I had the pleasure of serving on this committee, which comprised 8 people (including 4 ACLEA Past Presidents) chosen for their diverse perspectives. The committee was ably co-chaired by the renowned Frank Harris and Carole Wagan and included Larry Center, Roy Ginsburg, Erin Monahan, Megan Moore, and Alan Treleaven. It was a delight to serve with each of them.
Specifically, the committee was tasked with identifying and organizing the core competencies specific to the CLE profession. Many interviews, focus groups, and survey responses later, we published a profile that identified 15 core competency areas and about 130 specific competencies that CLE professionals need to be successful. ACLEA publishes this document on its website, here.
My work with this committee 5 years ago was recently front-of-mind, sparked by an invitation to speak at a session on “Competencies of Professional Development Professionals in the Spotlight” for the Continuing Legal Education Association of Australasia (CLEAA) in Brisbane.
In a session facilitated by the very knowledgeable and forward-thinking Jacqui Lynagh, the CLEAA session participants reviewed, reflected on, and discussed ACLEA’s “Competencies of CLE Professionals” document. I gave some background on ACLEA’s project, including the challenge we had been trying to address, the competencies we identified, and some thoughts 5 years later.
Given I was providing my comments at the mercy of technology across 12,000 km (8,000 miles) and several time zones, we recorded a backup version of my remarks. For the niche group who is interested in this topic, the video is below.
I love re-assessing work from years past using current information and frameworks. In reflecting on ACLEA core competencies project, I had the following thoughts:
We got some things dead right. So many competency profiles I see focus narrowly on discipline-specific technical knowledge and skills, without giving adequate attention to critical “professional foundations” (like leadership and relationship management). While there is a growing trend to better emphasize these areas, many profiles still subtly downplay their importance by using phrases like “enabling competencies.” I am proud that ACLEA’s profile includes these professional foundations unapologetically alongside technical skills.
In developing this profile, we used a more traditional job task analysis lens. This carried through to the organization of the competency profile. While job task analysis continues to be a useful tool, I would recommend a different lens when organizing and communicating the profile. In much of our work at Principia, we use a role-based approach that reflects lawyers in their multidimensional roles (e.g. “lawyer as communicator,” “lawyer as problem-solver,” “lawyer as relationship-manager,” “lawyer as 21st century knowledge worker,” etc.) Today, I prefer this approach to one that focuses on specific tasks. (Tomorrow, however, we may have better approaches even still!)
Research suggests that the competencies we identified have aged quite well. If we were doing this project today, however, current work in professional competencies indicates that there are several areas that would be added or augmented. For example:
- Emotional intelligence. The profile hints at elements of emotional intelligence, but I think today we would emphasize it more. (This is another example of the “kale in a smoothie” syndrome.)
- Intercultural competence. The profile is silent on the topic of intercultural competence—the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people who differ from us. CLE professionals (along with many others) desperately need this competency. This is an omission that should be rectified. Full stop.
- Technology. Technology-related competencies are included in the profile, but today I suspect we would include some more future-looking ones. Five years ago, talking about competencies related to understanding or working with AI seemed science-fiction-y; today, somewhat less so.
- Wellness. Today, I wouldn’t be afraid to include wellness-based competencies, such as those around self-care and managing stress. To be clear, this is no way suggests that people can’t suffer health-related issues and be amazing CLE professionals (quite the opposite!). That said, as an adjunct to a profession that is plagued by work-induced health challenges and burn-out, we should consider recognizing the competency-based aspects of working effectively in a demanding job, without exacerbating pre-existing conditions or causing ourselves undue physical or mental harm. Being able to do this is a competency.
- Learning and developing. The competency profile should, in my opinion, underscore such competencies as self-leadership, lifelong learning, and reflective practice. These competencies are important for any professional, but they are competencies that someone working in continuing professional development must have and should be able to model. These weren’t omitted for any scientific reason—they simply weren’t as front-of-mind then as they would likely be today.
While some of the above competencies are arguably implicit in the existing profile, if I were consulting on this project today, I would recommend making them explicit.
- The power of a profile. When we developed this profile, I confess I saw it as a basic tool—an invaluable one, but a tool, nonetheless. Today, I appreciate that a profile like this is so much more. Without getting too philosophical, a competency profile has the potential to define the self-concept of a generation of professionals. While we can’t be paralyzed by this notion, we need to be mindful of what our competency profiles communicate. If we were working on this profile today, I would ask at regular intervals: Does this profile communicate in a way that is appropriately aspirational and inspirational? How does this profile convey the best of who we are as CLE professionals… and who we are destined to become?
- The character quotient. Today, I believe our work would reflect aspects of the “character quotient.” Even now, there is trepidation in including personal qualities, traits, and characteristics in some profiles. This is changing. If we were starting this work today, I think we would have some meaningful discussions about the role such attributes might play in developing a professional profile such as this.
- Living documents. In the competency-related documentation that we develop at Principia, we always include something to the effect of: “This competency profile and related documentation are intended to be ‘living documents;’ we expect they will evolve and change as the demands of professionals evolve and change.” This is a reminder that, implicit in the creation of a competency profile, is a commitment to keeping the work current. In looking back at our profile from 5 years ago, I still feel this is important.
- Perfect is the enemy of good. I am so grateful that ACLEA embarked on this initiative when it did. It is so tempting to wait for the “perfect time” to tackle such a project or to wait until someone else “figures it all out.” If you are thinking about such a project, just do it. Don’t worry about perfection; you learn more from mistakes than successes anyway. While the final product will undoubtedly be useful (to all aspects human resources management and learning and development activities), the value doesn’t lie only in reaching the destination: the journey of developing, updating, or critiquing a competency profile is an incredible learning experience.
The fact that we can identify ways to improve the profile today doesn’t diminish the quality of the work that was done. Five years later, I still highly recommend ACLEA’s competencies for CLE professionals document as a starting point for anyone working in continuing legal education or continuing professional development. For anyone who is interested in how such profiles can be used in continuing legal education organizations or in how to develop an updated or customized profile for an organization, please get in touch. Connect with us.