a Competency Model Approach

By Sandee Magliozzi, Associate Clinical Professor and Director of Professional Development and Externships

In a climate of industry changes and client demands to deliver value faster, better, and cheaper, a competency model approach has emerged as a valuable tool for developing legal talent. Although competency development is not new, a competency model approach to law practice and particularly legal education has only recently gained traction. Santa Clara Law is among a small group of law schools leading the way by articulating competencies and adopting a model to guide students in preparing for practice.

“Today’s lawyers need to be problem solvers, team builders, and strong communicators,” says Julia Yaffee, Senior Assistant Dean for External Affairs and member of the Santa Clara Law Curriculum Committee that has created the Law School’s competency model. “We are focusing on enabling our students to develop these key skills while in law school through a variety of means, including classroom instruction, experiential learning—such as moot court and externships—and community service—such as our legal clinics.”

Simply, competencies are observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors critical to successful performance. A competency model is a collection of competencies that together define the elements of that performance. It is an effective approach because it articulates and makes transparent how students need to prepare for rapidly changing practice settings as employers seek graduates who are efficient, productive, cost effective, and capable. By providing an overarching frame for success, a competency model creates links between the components of the curriculum and law practice, and perhaps most importantly, creates a foundation and a road map for students.

Santa Clara Law’s Curriculum Committee undertook a process to create a competency model that includes competencies covered in doctrinal class and additional competencies identified as those necessary to be a good lawyer by the California State Bar and alumni practitioners. A well designed competency model will:

  • assist Santa Clara Law in articulating learning outcomes for students;
  • provide a way to systematically review curricula;
  • support and guide students in tracking their skills development;
  • identify clearly for each student the importance of individual professional development; and
  • provide a basis for ongoing conversations and communication with prospective employers regarding their expectations of graduates.

The Santa Clara Law competency model emphasizes foundational competencies that are important to everyone in the field and yet also align with the Santa Clara Law School’s mission and highlight what we believe distinguishes Santa Clara Law students. “The Law School’s competency model is a critical step in ensuring, systematically, that our curriculum meets the needs of today’s students and the evolving practice environment,” says Brad Joondeph, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Inez Mabie Distinguished Professor of Law. “The creation of the model drew on the faculty’s wide-ranging expertise and creativity, across different subject matters and different ways of teaching, from traditional doctrinal professors to clinicians,” says Joondeph. “Our model, while reflecting the changing employment settings for our students, is also distinctive to Santa Clara and our mission. At bottom, its goal is to support the education of the whole person—a competent, moral being who uses her professional skills ultimately to serve humanity.”

The model also allows us to more easily create and incorporate the student learning outcomes that the proposed revisions to the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools will require. Many use competencies and student learning outcomes interchangeably, but they are different. Competencies function at a higher level. Learning outcomes are about acquiring skills and knowledge. Competency requires students to process learning in a way that enables them to apply that skill and knowledge in a variety of situations and to a variety of tasks.

Dean Lisa Kloppenberg says that alumni are a key component of Santa Clara Law’s focus on these competencies. “The Law School is working to connect our students with our alumni to learn how SCU alumni use these competencies in their work as lawyers,” she says.

Alumni connected with students at the Santa Clara Law Student Leadership Workshop held in November 2013. At the event, recent alumni shared with current student leaders how they used one or more of the “SCU competencies” in their experience as a student leader and explained how they also connected that skill to their work today. Caitlin Robinett Jachimowicz ’10 (who held many leadership roles in law school including the Student Bar Association (SBA) president, SBA print editor, editor-in-chief of the The Advocate, and co-president of the Environmental Law Society), shared some reflections on initiative. “Every single person who is involved with a law student organization has initiative because of the way the organizations are set up at Santa Clara,” she told the student gathering. “The administration does not tell you how to run your organization. They do not tell you…whether to do events, and they don’t tell you how much money you should ask for.”

The “competencies movement” has been well established in other professions. Competency development in higher education was spearheaded by medicine and accounting. The legal profession did not get onboard until the new millennium. Even then, firms that developed competencies for their attorneys were at the forefront of the movement. Legal education in the United States has been slower to respond to competency development when compared with Australia, Canada, England, and Wales, but the U.S. is now beginning to understand how using a competency model approach to develop professionals can also help frame the curriculum and assist in the articulation of learning outcomes. Providing such a framework helps law schools develop each student and allows students to understand and demonstrate the mastery of the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that legal employers expect as they enter practice, which adds to their recruitability and future competence as practitioners.

Competency modeling began as a corporate initiative designed to align the skills, knowledge, and abilities of employees with the company’s strategic goals and objectives. A competency model framework is a structure that sets out core competencies and defines each individual competency (such as legal writing or problem-solving) required for entrylevel professional practice in terms of performance factors and observable behavioral elements. Performance factors are the specific skills and behaviors that together describe the full dimensions of a core competency. Behavioral elements are simply descriptions of the observable behaviors that would be exhibited by new lawyers who have mastered a performance factor.


Initiative: Takes responsibility and proactively manages work

Performance Factors


Ownership and Accountability

Professional Development

Behavioral Elements

Works with drive and determination

Is innovative and entrepreneurial

Establishes credibility and integrity

Builds relationships

Thinks strategically

Takes personal responsibility for getting things done

Knows how and when to delegate and engage others

Takes pride in his or her work

Manages time efficiently and meets deadlines

Demonstrates intellectual curiosity and commitment to life-long learning

Fully developed competency models also include proficiency levels that describe mastery of each performance factor for the specific level of development from novice to expert. They also include practice-specific benchmark experiences that developing lawyers should be accumulating as they progress. For a litigator, that might be filing your first complaint, arguing your first motion, taking your first deposition, and conducting your first trial. These elements—core competencies, performance factors, behavioral elements, levels, and benchmarks—of a competency model provide a framework to map the curriculum and other learning opportunities with individual development goals of students, allowing them to focus both on current and future development.

Working with the faculty, the Curriculum Committee will use this model in evaluating potential curricular changes with the goal of developing a curriculum designed to ensure that there are sufficient courses that address these competencies and that all students have the opportunity to develop each competency at appropriate levels. The competency model can be used in Santa Clara Law’s traditional course-based curriculum, and it can also be used as a tool to help us revise and streamline the curriculum in new and innovative ways. The primary vision for the model is the graduation of law students who are more fully prepared for the many challenges and opportunities they face as they enter the profession.

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Santa Clara Law Competencies
  • Research
  • Writing
  • Legal Knowledge
  • Legal Analysis
  • Professional Responsibility
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Initiative
  • Conscience and Compassion


Santa Clara Law Curriculum Committee
Pat Cain, Chair
Evangeline Abriel
Angelo Ancheta
Susan Erwin
Eric Goldman
Anna Han
Brad Joondeph
Sandee Magliozzi
David Sloss
Stephanie Wildman
Julia Yaffee
David Yosifon


In 2014, Santa Clara was recognized by the National Jurist as one of 60 schools named to its honor roll of schools that deliver practical training. The magazine based the ranking on four factors—three objective and one subjective. The three objective factors included the number of clinic positions per enrollment, the number of field placements or externships per enrollment, and the number of simulation courses per enrollment. The magazine pulled data from each school’s required ABA information.


Santa Clara Law is a leader in its number of professional development offerings for students. In the 2012-13 academic year at Santa Clara Law, there were:
474   students enrolled in simulation courses
267   students enrolled in field work
257   students enrolled in clinical courses
122   students participated in interscholastic moot court competitions