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The Rise of the T-Shaped Lawyer

The term “T-shaped person” was first coined in a 1991 London Newspaper Editorial discussing jobs in computing. The concept was that a T-shaped person has a particular depth of knowledge on a topic (being the vertical stroke of the T) and a breadth of knowledge on supporting disciplines that allows for collaboration (the horizontal stroke of the T). Although originally conceived to describe technology professionals, the term T-shaped is also pertinent to lawyers. 

Fast forward to the 21st century where technology has revolutionized the traditional business process and demanded that lawyers possess multi-disciplinary skills to best meet their clients' needs. But how? Lawyers are traditionally conservative when it comes to change due to the risk-adverse nature of their profession. As Michigan-based attorney R Amani Sathers commented: “They are considered laggards and luddites when it comes to any changes that might affect their practices.”

What are these non-traditional skills on the top of the T? Firstly, it is an array of soft skills, such as cross collaboration, innovative thinking, emotional intelligence, communication, project management, leadership and complex problem solving. Then there are the technical skills such as technology, data analytics, security, and commercial acumen. 

This demand for an additional ‘T’ of knowledge boils down to the increasing demands of clients and the wider business world. Lawyers who can harness technology are able to provide efficient and more cost-effective services. Possessing commercial knowledge allows the lawyer to have a genuine understanding of their client’s industry in which legal assistance is required. Couple this with soft skills and you have a lawyer who is far more capable of aligning themselves to client needs, and helping them achieve better business outcomes. 

Lawyers of the 20th century were I-shaped. The demand was simply for them to provide deep legal knowledge tailored to each client in the belief that every situation was unique. There was no requirement for lawyers to have a technological skill set. In fact, most had secretaries who would type their thoughts and even emails. 

These days, clients are demanding a higher level of technological competency from their lawyers. They have no desire to pay by the six-minute increment for work that is started from scratch when technological systems can be embedded to create more efficient processes. Data analytics allow lawyers to learn from their work, to tailor existing solutions to clients rather than working from scratch on every case. There are companies already revolutionizing traditional legal work practices in this manner.  

But with today’s large firms cutting support staff, and paralegals some of the first to go, lawyers with technological skills are now able to hit the ground running, and are in high demand. 

What exactly does technology in a legal context entail? E-discovery, document automation and management, data storage and analytics, practice management and workflow software such as LawVu

D Casey Flaherty, Corporate Counsel at Kia Motors America, implemented a technology audit for legal firms that worked with Kia. The audit uncovered a lack of basic technology competence in lawyers, which in turn resulted in an unnecessary cost to the client, in this case Kia. 

The older generation of lawyers, who grew up before the integration of the computer and the internet into our everyday business practices, largely impact these findings. However, millennial lawyers also show traits of technology avoidance. Law students tend to be more technology averse than, say, commerce students. Their field of study is literature-heavy and traditionally has not required anything other than developing a legal skillset. These old-school traditions need to change. 

Mark Cohen, a lecturer at IE Law School, says the digital age “is reimagining the provider-customer dynamic and transforming how goods and services are bought and sold”. The legal industry is no stranger to this change and must adapt to a client-centric, tech-enabled model of work. Cohen says companies that have embraced a digital model have a stronger commitment to improving customer experience, access and loyalty by efficiently harnessing data. 

Ultimately, a T-shaped lawyer can work horizontally and is able to take on more responsibility, managing their own projects and providing leadership within the legal department. As individual roles are changing within legal departments, having this ability to work horizontally is crucial. One only needs to look to General Counsel now requiring deep legal knowledge,and the ability to steer, strategize and align a legal team to wider business objectives.

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