Be a Successful 21 Century Legal Professional by Becoming T, Delta or O Shaped

Lawyers as a profession have long been well known as domain experts, client advocates and problem solvers. 

However, there is increasing recognition and analysis of the broader core skillsets and mindsets required for lawyers and future legal service professionals to succeed. 

T-shaped lawyer 

The concept of the T-shaped professional has long been promoted in different contexts, from computing at IBM, to management consulting at McKinsey, and creative design at IDEO. 

The concept of the T-shaped lawyer was popularised when recent law graduate R. Amani Smathers wrote about "The 21st Century T-shaped Lawyer" in the July/August 2014 issue of American Bar Association (ABA) Law Practice Magazine.

Good lawyers are renowned to have depth in specialist legal knowledge and skills (ie, being “I -shaped”). The T-shaped lawyer recognises that he or she also needs breadth of skills (ie, being "T-shaped”), including business tools and technology, project management and analytics and design and e-discovery. 

This T-shaped lawyer model should intuitively make sense to many seasoned practitioners who are also business owners that appreciate that they should be more client-centric, manage projects to better serve clients and master technology tools to improve efficiency and delivery of services. Legaltech continues to evolve from online legal research, e-discovery, practice management and mobile communications, to AI-powered document review and analysis, online dispute resolution (ODR) and the rise of telelaw (as a counterpart to the rise of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic). 

This model has been used by one legal consultant to apply specifically to T shaped in-house lawyers, and taken even further by a Dutch academic who used it to focus on the need for legal education to be more interdisciplinary to fulfill a lawyer’s professional role in society. She even created a fun little self-test asking "How T-shaped are you?", and readers are welcome to try out the self-test here ( to see how they fare. 

Delta Competency Model for Legal Professionals 

In 2018, a small group comprising law professors from Northwestern and Michigan State and legal professionals from Mayer Brown and legaltech giant Thomson Reuters met at a conference hosted at Michigan State's LegalRnD Lab run by Dan Linna. The group recognised the value of the T-shaped lawyer and the need for lawyers to expand their competency to process, data and technology, and then in the words of Northwestern Law School's Alyson Carrel "flipped the T-shaped Lawyer on its side" and added a third component, Personal Effectiveness Skills, to better capture the human element of lawyering that enables him or her to be a counselor and trusted advisor. Key personal effectiveness skills include relationship management, entrepreneurial mindset, emotional intelligence, communication and character. They called this the Delta Competency Model. 

The subsequent iteration of the delta-shaped model became more dynamic, where the midpoint of the delta can be shifted to reflect differing priorities of law, business operations and personal effectiveness with respect to legal professionals in different entities and roles and at different stages of their career. In this way, the competency model can be applied to large firm lawyers, solo practitioners, public interest lawyers, legal solutions architects, legal operations and in-house counsel.

This model has undergone various validation processes with law firms and corporate legal departments, and was described in a White Paper on Adapting for 21st century successs: the Delta Lawyer Competency Model in September 2019 by Professor Carrel and Thomson Reuter's Natalie Runyon. Personal effectiveness competencies were confirmed as critical for success, with entrepreneurial mindset, adaptability and emotional intelligence being the top 3 attributes according to interview feedback and survey respondents. 

In 2020, Professor Carrel and Vanderbilt Law School's Cat Moon further simplified the model descriptors to 3 Ps - The People, The Process and The Practice, and are creating visualisation delta maps and tools to guide legal professionals with their individual career goals as well as to assist in hiring decisions (ie, to Design Your Delta).

O-shaped lawyer 

Across the Atlantic, another initiative has emerged that is driven instead by 18 leading UK general counsel – ie, the important corporate clients of law firms and major users of legal services. 

The O-shaped lawyer (, as described by Network Rail’s General Counsel (Regions) Dan Kayne, exudes optimism and is open, opportunistic, original and takes ownership. 

In addition to having a proactive mindset with knowledge of the business and customer domain (in addition to the law), the O-shaped lawyer has 12 key skills over three categories, namely: (a) being adaptable through having courage and resilience, and seeking feedback and continuous learning; (b) building relationships through having empathy, and influencing, communicating and collaborating; and (c) creating value through legal initiatives by identifying opportunities, solving problems, synthesizing and simplifying complexities. 

The O Shaped Lawyer Programme has a two-pronged approach. 

First, a pilot programme has been created between law firms and large corporate clients to spend six months to identify the key O-shaped lawyer attributes and develop new best practices in a safe space environment. Some general counsel have even introduced O-shaped lawyer principles into their requests for proposals (RFPs). 

Second, in light of the introduction of the more flexible Solicitor’s Qualifying Examination (SQE) in 2021 that will replace the Legal Practice Course and the requirement of a law degree to practice law, the Programme hopes to use this “once in a generation opportunity” to direct its pilot O-shaped lawyer findings and work with universities and legal training providers to modernise legal education of would be-lawyers. 

Overall, each of the three competency models have many similarities and yet differ in focus and motivation. The O Shaped Lawyer Programme is ambitious and action-orientated in being driven by corporate counsel seeking to improve their service providers and also future lawyers. The Delta Competency Model applies broadly beyond fee-earning lawyers to the increasing myriad of roles providing legal service delivery and lawtech. And the anecdotal changing of consumer behaviour and increasing inclusion of RFP questions regarding the use of technology is driving more T-shaped considerations at law firms. 

While each of these models can be helpful to lawyers, legal professionals and law students alike, we must each individually and collectively continue to strive to find ways to further develop and improve ourselves and at the same time transmit those key skills and mindsets to our next generation. Only then can we succeed in the competitive and evolving legal marketplace, and improve access to justice. 

(source: ABA Law Practice Magazine)​

(source: Delta Model Working Group)​

(source: “The lawyer of the future is O shaped” (Thomson Reuters Practical Law, February 6, 2020)​


Founder, LITE Lab@HKU and ACMI

Brian W Tang is founding executive director of LITE Lab@HKU to foster law, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship (LITE) at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law and managing director of ACMI. Brian was previously at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong and at Sullivan & Cromwell on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley where he advised on some of the world’s largest and rst-ever nancial services and technology capital markets, M&A and project nance transactions. He is co-chair of Fintech Association of Hong Kong’ Regtech Committee and was on Hong Kong Corporate Counsel Association’s Executive Committee. Brian graduated from The University of Western Australia with a combined Bachelors of Arts and Law (with honours) and from New York University School of Law with a Masters of Laws.