The ‘plus-shaped’ lawyer for the 21st century

  • Subtitle: In-house Coach
Written by  Posted Date: April 17, 2017
The ‘plus-shaped’ lawyer for the 21st centuryThe Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s national spring conference wrapped up Tuesday afternoon in Toronto. I was honoured and privileged to act, along with my colleague Mary Ellen Bench, as the co-chairperson for such a wonderful event. Speakers from across the country spoke on topical issues such as CASL compliance, the changing United States/Canada relationship, modernizing insurance coverage, drafting 101 and more.

With regard to this column, there was one session in particular that I want to address called “The industry reload: 4.0 skills for the 4.0 future.” This session, focusing on legal tech and how our industry is changing, was timely as legal tech is becoming a very sexy topic and is in the process of dramatically changing our profession. The session spoke to what in-house counsel can do to make their companies ready to accept and adopt new technology. One idea in particular caught my attention and that is the discussion surrounding the “T-shaped” lawyer.

For more information on the T-shaped lawyer, you can read Amani Smathers’ article “The 21st-Century T-Shaped Lawyer”. This concept has been used since at least 1991 and it refers to the fact that lawyers have traditionally had very deep legal knowledge and an understanding of legal practice to the point that they are almost insular. They had blinders on for other subject matter expertise. This is referred to as an I-shaped lawyer. Where needed, external consultants and experts were used for even the most basic of understandings of non-legal areas. The lawyer was the specialist and gate-keeper of legal knowledge and practice!

Conversely, a T-shaped lawyer is skilled and knowledgeable of the law but also has a broad understanding of other expertise such as technology, business, project management, human resources, data security, risk management, politics, etc. This is how you get the horizontal span of the T. As noted by Smathers, “T-shaped lawyers . . . do not necessarily need deep expertise in any field besides law. They need to be able to communicate and collaborate across disciplines, which requires breadth of knowledge and skills in different areas.” A facility with technology and a business-savvy lawyer, as I have argued many times before in my columns, is a lawyer who is most likely to be a successful one.  

While I subscribe to this view of tomorrow’s lawyer needing to have a broader level of expertise and knowledge, an interest and facility in dealing with technology and other fundamentals, such as understanding the fundamentals of business, project management and government affairs, I feel that something is missing from this T-shaped model. It speaks of knowledge, but it omits fundamental skills also required to be a successful lawyer in the 21st century.

We often speak of lawyers adding value. We need to add value for our clients and to our organizations. As 21st-century lawyers, especially in Canada, we also need to be able to work alongside lawyers from different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and experiences. A successful lawyer in the 21st century, I would argue, also needs to possess critical interpersonal and empathy skills and they need to value diversity and inclusiveness. They must also understand and be able to adapt unique approaches, as Mark Webber noted during his session on story-telling at the conference, to make sure their messages are being understood and retained by the listener.

In my respectful submission, beyond a breadth of knowledge in various subject matters, these are all skills that set a spectacular lawyer apart from a mediocre one. I have, therefore, added these critical skills to a box immediately above the horizontal line of the broad subject matter expertise of a T-shaped lawyer. They are skills that are necessary to make one a truly successful, value-added lawyer. It is this plus-shaped lawyer for the 21st century that we should all strive to become.

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+1 # Special Counsel-Commercial, Government & International Contracts and ComplianceChuck Barry 2017-05-12 12:41
Fernando, I agree the "plus-shaped lawyer for the 21st century that we should all strive to become. Good reminder to me to keep hand and re-read regularly. Thank you.
Chuck Barry
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+3 # Legal CounselAdegoke Arowosebe 2017-05-08 00:04
Thanks, very insightful! Emotional intelligence, as well as the soft skills that you mentioned, are what make a true 21st century leader. And for your lawyers to be truly successful and add value to their clients, they can't afford to ignore these qualities.

Once again, thanks for penning this.
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+2 # Associate Corporate CounselParimal Ananth 2017-05-07 14:47
Great insight!
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+2 # deputy director LLC "POST"Maryna Omelinska 2017-04-23 09:46
Agrees with your opinion,
Although many lawyers will need to change their minds
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Fernando Garcia

Fernando Garcia is the General Counsel for Nissan Canada, Inc. Fernando’s duties include providing strategic and legal advice on Canada-wide dealer operations, labour relations and employment law, government affairs and all general legal matters. He holds an MIR from the University of Toronto, and LLB/BCL from McGill and recently completed an MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University. He can be reached at:  fernando.garcia@nissancanada.com.

Column: In-house Coach

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