Portrait of a Twenty-First Century Lawyer

Version 2.0 – The “Delta Model” of Lawyer Competence

In the late 1990’s, the beginning of a new century and the dawn of a new millennium loomed large with equal parts possibility and disaster. The Y2K bug was expected to wreak havoc on computer systems due to the practice of programming calendar years as two digits instead of four. The doomsday scenario reached fever pitch in 1999 (even though the century would not actually turn until the end of 2000). The fascination with the new age was not confined to the general public though. Various professionals jumped on the bandwagon of predicting a newer, better version of their respective specialties, each dubbed the 21st century professional. The engineering field, in particular, produced numerous scholarly articles aimed toward bringing that profession into the 21st century. The non-technical areas that engineers needed to improve were globalization, communication, and ethics. Further, professionalism, diversity, and leadership were also proposed as areas needing improvement. Not surprisingly, almost exactly the same suggestions appeared in works suggesting that the legal profession needed an analogous reformation.

Even before the 1990’s, lawyers were heralding the 21st century as a new age for law. With the help of Google and Lexis, references to the “21st century lawyer” can be found as far back as 1986 when the ABA Commission on Professionalism called for law schools to prepare students for the 21st century. In 1991, the ABA published an article detailing the technology that lawyers would need to embrace the future of law.

The fascination with the 21st century lawyer has remained strong. Eighteen years into the 21st century, it is rare that a day goes by without some reference to the “21st century lawyer” crossing the Twittersphere. In trying to define the 21st century lawyer, some described this elusive beast in terms of the skills that a lawyer should possess. Others have focused on identifying the personal characteristics of the 21st century lawyer. In 2016, Larry Richard (Founder & Principal Consultant at LawyerBrain) took an informal survey of law firm managing partners. The survey revealed the following list of qualities, in no particular order, that the managers believed lawyers of the future should possess:

  • Technology Skills
  • Leadership Skills
  • Entrepreneurial Skills
  • Business Acumen
  • Presence or Gravitas
  • Collaboration Skills
  • EQ and Empathy
  • Resilience Skills
  • Agility, Adaptability
  • Multiculturism or “Global Mindset”
  • Ability to Synthesize
  • Joint Degree

These qualities expand the traditional notions of the characteristics necessary to be a successful lawyer. Traditionally, successful lawyers were described as I-shaped with only deep knowledge of the law.

In 2014, R. Amani Smathers introduced the legal profession to the T-shaped lawyer. The T-shape transformed the “I” by adding a horizontal bar across the top to represent multi-disciplinary skills in “technology, business, analytics and data security.”

In 2017, Fernando Garcia debuted the plus (+) shaped lawyer. In this model, a box is placed above the horizontal stroke of the T effectively transforming the T to a plus sign. This box contained “critical interpersonal and empathy skills” along with recognition of the “value [of] diversity and inclusiveness.”

A few months ago, a group consisting of Natalie Runyon (Director and Head of the Talent Platform at the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute), Alyson Carrel (Assistant Dean of Law and Technology Initiatives at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law), and myself introduced the Delta Model.

This model places the deep knowledge of the law (the I) as the base of a triangle. The remaining two sides of the triangle are the multi-disciplinary skills from the T’s horizontal piece and an expanded version of the interpersonal skills found in the plus model. These interpersonal skills, often maligned as soft skills, included a range of personal effective skills such as communication, emotional intelligence, and relationship management.

After 32 years of visualization (1986 to the present), the 21st century lawyer should have been well defined by now. However, it seems that calls for change are just a continual rehashing of the same points. Just as items get recycled on Twitter, ideas of the 21st century lawyer get in various media and other forums. In the next few months, we will examine whether law is stuck in a morass of self-promotion and if all of the calls for change are just a case of “re-tweeting” or new problems. We will also look to see if the issues being highlighted remained the same over time or if the harbingers of doom are presenting new problems. Over the next few months, we will examine the body of work describing the 21st century lawyer in order to create a composite of this mythical creature and see whether one exists in the wild. Once the composite has been developed, we will examine the suggestions that have been made regarding how to create this creature. Finally, we will examine the suggestions made to bring the practice of law forward and evaluate any attempts to implement those suggestions.

The practice of law certainly has made some advances, but has it progressed enough? Unfortunately, not all lawyers embrace change. For some, the old way will remain the only way. After all, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, these lawyers fail to see the cracks appearing in the foundation of the old ways of practicing law. Changing our profession is not impossible. Are you willing to do your part? Here’s how you can get start on becoming a 21st century lawyer and advancing the legal profession as a whole:

1. Examine your own practice. Question why.

  • What was shockingly backwards to you when you started your career?
  • Are you still doing things that way?

2. Evaluate whether you utilize the technology available to you efficiently.

3. Reach out to law school deans to let them know what you want to see from graduates. Offer to pay for a speaker that can introduce innovation, legal tech and emotional intelligence to students.

4. Work with state bar associations to get training in emerging areas of practice.

5. Service providers: Allow law students to use your products while in school. Some professors are already implementing this model in partnership with brands like Clio (www.clio.com), a cloud-based practice management software developed by Themis Solutions Inc.

Are you a 21st Century Lawyer?
What can you do to progress the legal profession forward?

Written by: Shellie Reid


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