On Training “T-shaped” Lawyers

These conversations apply to law the “T-shaped” concept that has circulated in professional development circles for a bit longer, arguing that successful professionals increasingly need not only deep technical skills in the relevant discipline (the vertical bar) but also a solid suite of related general skills (the horizontal bar). What’s right, what’s wrong, what’s new, and what’s missing in these conversations?

What’s right: Successful professionals do need to be agile, adaptable, and resilient across a wide range of competencies. That’s true for lawyers as well as for others, and it’s true for beginning lawyers as well as for lawyers progressing further into their careers. The potential breadth of the horizontal bar will vary with the baseline suite included in the vertical bar. For lawyers, critical thinking and communications skills are usually included in the vertical, not part of the horizontal. The number and types of the competencies included in the horizontal bar in any particular context may be narrower or broader, depending on individual preferences and market needs. For lawyers, the horizontal bar may include quantitative skills, financial skills, project management skills, technology skills, emotional intelligence competencies, and true problem-solving and design thinking skills. In some tellings, the horizontal bar for lawyers means principally financial and quantitative skills. In others, the horizontal bar also includes technology or design skills. Sometimes, emotional intelligence or “EQ” is reduced to so-called “soft skills,” or omitted altogether.

What’s wrong: The T-shaped label suggests that there is something new going on, and that market expectations are changing with respect to professional services. That’s largely mistaken, in my view. The substance isn’t new (or news). Successful professionals have always had to be agile, adaptable, and resilient across a wide range of competencies in addition to their basic technical skills.

What’s new: There is some novelty in making the expected T-shaped outcome more explicit (via the metaphor and accompanying image), and there is something important and new in the message regarding how the T-shape is produced. Often, it’s an implied message, but to my ears it’s unambiguous: the burden of developing that T-shape falls on individual lawyers and law students, rather than on their schools or employers or the profession as a whole. An older version of professional development would have assumed that law firms and other employers would assume responsibility for training new hires in what we now call T-shaped skills. The newest version communicates the idea that students need to figure out these skills in order to compete effectively for jobs and careers.

What’s missing: That burden shift means that the picture of T-shaped lawyer development is woefully incomplete.

The incompleteness relates partly to the sense that a burden of becoming T-shaped seems to be placed in large part on the shoulders of people who may not have the right resources or incentives to meet it. Many US law schools focus intently on preparing their students to take and pass the bar exam. That’s an important goal in many respects, but pursuing it with the intensity that many law schools encourage may be inconsistent, in basic, practical terms, with exploring T-shaped competencies. There are only so many topics that can be priority #1 for students, and there are only so many hours in a day.

The incompleteness relates partly to a continuing mismatch between what students are told they should do – become T-shaped lawyers – and the resources and expertise that their law schools make available to them, even if law schools express “become a T-shaped lawyer” as a meaningful priority. The law faculty may not have the knowledge and skills needed to teach or to model T-shaped professionalism. US law schools do not, on the whole, recruit, retain, and promote “T-shaped” law professors. The modal (and model) new law professor today is an icon of the vertical part of the T: smart and driven on analytic skills, in the classroom and in the scholarship. The horizontal part of the T is rarely an explicit part of the professor’s academic identity, training, or mission.

Some of the gap between what law schools teach (the vertical bar in the T) and what law students are increasingly told they need (the horizontal bar) has been filled and will continue to be filled by law clinics and clinical law faculty. But clinics already shoulder a big training load. It is neither feasible nor fair simply to add yet another layer of professional development to them – even if teaching T-shaped lawyering were part of their missions. And it may not be.

In short, our educational system appears to be misaligned with at least some important market signals. Next week, I’ll talk about a case study of how one aspect of the T-shaped phenomenon is playing out in US law schools so far: leadership education.