Mastering PD: The PDC’s Evolving Competency Model

By Kathleen Dunn

In 2010, the Professional Development Consortium (PDC) began to explore defining and developing a competency model for those in legal professional development. The professionals working in such positions now provide a unique combination of services, including recruiting, training, human resources and law firm management. Is legal professional development a career? A calling? Something else? What would the competencies be, and should they drive such job descriptions? But perhaps most importantly, what would it mean to the firms and other organizations that employ professional development professionals?

The PDC is a group of professionals at law firms, government agencies and corporations who are responsible for developing and administering training and continuing professional development for lawyers. From a beginning in 1990 as a small, informal group of individuals, the PDC has grown into an organization of more than 500 uniquely qualified members representing more than 230 organizations. While most are in the U.S., members also are in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Not so long ago, legal professional development practitioners were primarily responsible for integrating new associates and laterals, managing summer associate programs and administering CLE programs. However, as law firm practice management has grown, developed, and become more complex, so has legal professional development. Legal professional development practitioners have become valuable and strategic assets, supporting their organizations by providing highly specialized support in a number of ways, including executive coaching, leadership development, knowledge management, strategic planning, and organizational development.

The legal industry is rapidly changing how it hires, evaluates and retains attorneys. One such change is the development and implementation of competency models and benchmarks. According to a 2009 NALP Foundation survey launched on behalf of the PDC, approximately 65 percent of responding firms reported they have already developed or are developing core competencies. Common uses reported for a competency model include professional development initiatives, recruiting, succession planning, knowledge management and talent management. Legal PD practitioners provide key support and expertise in the design, development, and delivery of core competencies and benchmarks.

In developing competency models for PD professionals, the goals were two-fold: 1) create a road map to sustain the growth and development of PD professionals; and 2) enable organizations to identify, recruit, and develop new high-potential performers to guide their attorneys to success. By clearly identifying and understanding what PD practitioners do and how well they are supposed to be doing it, will enable them to provide the best possible support to their employers.

So just what is a “core competency” and where can I get one?

As defined by ASTD, a competency model is a “high-level graphic depiction of the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors (or competencies) required for success in a particular profession or job.”1 But how do you build a competency model? Where do you start?

The first task was to articulate specifically the goals of such models.  The principle goal was to develop a model broad enough to be relevant to the PDC membership while being specific enough to give individuals and firms a powerful organizational tool that will enable a link between individual performance goals and organizational goals and strategies.


Phase 1 of the project was data collection. A thorough Occupational Analysis was conducted by developing an inventory of the tasks, skills, and abilities engaged in by present Legal PD practitioners and how each of these tasks, skills and abilities are used. In addition, an extensive review of current and relevant literature was conducted, along with a series of focus groups and interviews with leaders in the PDC, law firm management, and other stakeholder groups.

A membership-wide survey of the PDC  provided detailed day-to-day job data from Legal PD professionals. The goal was to develop an accurate picture of the specific tasks and behaviors that contribute to successful job performance. The survey also gathered demographic data that included firm/organization size, number of years in role, functional level, etc. With a response rate of approximately 67 percent, the survey yielded a strong sampling of what PD professionals do. Evaluating that data, eight key areas of expertise were identified for focus. These include knowledge management, change management, performance management and improvement, training and instructional design, integrated talent management, department management, and firm-wide and departmental organizational strategy.

Once the data were collected and survey results analyzed, a draft model including four core competency areas and eight sub-competencies and definitions was developed. The core competencies areProfessionalism, Leadership, Management and Organizational Development,, Legal Industry Knowledge and Functional Expertise, and Performance Management and Professional Development.

Next Steps

The PDC is currently developing the associated competency statements, or performance standards to succinctly define the skills, understanding, attitudes, and knowledge required within each area of expertise for the individual to perform competently in the role at any given level. Each competency statement has four levels, ranging from entry level through senior/executive level. In this way, individuals can see where they stand and set goals for achievement. Since titles can vary greatly among organizations in both the public and private sectors, the model uses a tiered structure instead of titles as level differentiators.


Success as a legal PD professional is not dependent on the mastery of all core competencies by all practitioners, as we recognize that any organization’s strength is in part a result of the diversity of the talents of its professionals. Further, core competencies should not be considered a checklist. “Checking a box” does not ensure success. Rather, core competencies can serve as “guideposts along the road of development” for individuals in legal professional development.

The PDC competency model can be a powerful organizational tool that provides practitioners a clear path to growth and development. It not only will serve as a foundation for important organizational functions such as recruitment, hiring and retention, training and development, and performance management, it will give organizations the ability to identify and hire top legal professional development talent.

1ASTD Competency Study: The Training & Development Professional Redefined. 2013. American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). ASTD Press. Alexandria, VA.


About the Author

Kathleen Dunn is the director of learning and professional development at Patton Boggs, LLP in Washington, DC. She can be reached at (202) 457-6517.

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