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Article Future of Law North America

How to be a Modern Lawyer: Don’t Start with Technology

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By Romesh Hettiarachchi 

After more than half a decade of practice, I decided to start my own law firm three years ago. Worried about my future in the legal profession, I committed myself to better understanding what makes a “modern lawyer” modern. I assumed being a modern lawyer simply meant having access to the latest technology possible to serve the needs of my clients. 

The intervening years have largely dispelled this assumption. In fact, my experiences have led me to discover how little access to technology contributes to the development of the modern lawyer. 

Today, there are two dominant models influencing the discussions on modern lawyering: the “T-Shaped Lawyer” and the “Delta Model of Lawyer Competence”.

Amani Smathers proposed the T-Shaped Lawyer in 2014. This lawyer possesses deep legal expertise (long vertical bar of the T) in addition to knowledge of and appreciation for other disciplines (shallower horizontal bar of the T) such as technology, business, analytics, and data security. These additional skills enable T-Shaped lawyers to excel at problem solving and collaboration with professionals in related areas.

Building upon the T-Shaped model, Natalie Runyon and Alyson Carrell designed the Delta Model of Lawyer Competence – a triangle composed of three competency areas that are crucial to the success of today’s legal professionals. The Delta Model lawyer starts with a base of deep legal knowledge and skills. This is complemented by an understanding of how technology impacts their client’s business – as well as their own delivery of legal services – and is coupled with emotional intelligence and communication skills required to effectively work with clients. 

While these models certainly capture important elements of what makes a modern lawyer, they are flawed. Firstly, they primarily cater to the needs of business lawyers. Lawyers providing personal legal services like criminal, estate-planning, family, or immigration advice will find these models less relevant to their practices. 

Secondly, these models certainly don’t capture my learning experiences as an immigrant first-generation lawyer of colour; they wrongly assume that 21st century lawyers can develop these competencies in self-isolation. This assumption is demonstrably false. 

Lawyers will leverage technologies like artificial intelligence and e-discovery insofar as they are trained on these technologies and insofar as they and their clients can pay for them. Clients will only value their lawyers’ ability to collaborate across disciplines to the extent that this ability helps solve their problems. From an internal perspective, are the benefits realized from an employer valuing technological prowess if they also demand the lawyer to prioritize the needs of clients over the lawyer’s mental health and their family responsibilities, or fail to provide the support lawyers’ need to advance in their career?

These are not theoretical flaws. 

Female lawyers in Ontario continue to leave private practice in Ontario for the same reasons they did in 2008: the failure of the legal profession to adapt to the reality of women entering the legal profession. Female lawyers in America face similar challenges. According to the American Bar Association’s Profile of the Legal Profession, women only accounted for 21% of equity partners and 31% of non-equity partners in 2019 despite being approximately half of law graduates from American law schools for more than two decades.

The situation is worse if you are a lawyer of colour. Over 40% of racialized licensees responding to the Law Society of Ontario’s Challenges Faced by Racialized Licensees Working Group identified their physical appearance, socioeconomic status, place of birth, upbringing, age, manner of speaking English/French, and gender identity as barriers to legal practice. 43% of these licensees identified their ethnic/racial identity as a barrier to advancement.

These findings are manifested by the fact that just 35 out of around 4,000 partners of the largest law firms in Canada are black. The American Bar Association reports similar findings. While Hispanic, Black, and Asian populations comprise 15.3%, 13.4% and 5.9% of the total respective population in America, only 5% of lawyers across the United States are Hispanic, 5% are Black, and 2% are Asian.

These statistics and underlying realities reveal the dirty secret that law schools and leaders of the profession hide from law students: the practice of law is an experiential profession. While legal education may be a prerequisite to starting a legal career, the path of that career will be shaped by the knowledge, processes, and systems that aren’t found in textbooks or professional development programs, but delivered and gained through community and experiences. 

These experiences help answer the question, “what makes a modern lawyer modern?”.

Cliché as it may seem, the modern lawyer is a lawyer who stays in the legal profession. And the historical experiences of female and BIPOC lawyers demonstrate that lawyers will only stay in the legal profession if their communities provide the experiences, resources, and support they need to advance their careers. Without these building blocks, these lawyers will leave. 

The interviews I’ve conducted on the Lawtrepreneur Briefing podcast have reaffirmed what I’ve learnt through building a modern legal practice: lawyers are constructs of their experiences and their communities. Lawyers will modernize their practices only if their internal (colleagues, staff, mentors, and advisors) and external (suppliers, clients and referral sources) community members inform and incentivize their decision making. 

I am not saying access to technology is not important for modern lawyering. Lawyers in the 21st century will obviously need to be technologically competent and successful law firms will be built on digital infrastructure. However, access to technology is only one element to being a modern lawyer. In the same way that having access to a pen does not mean you know how to be a lawyer, having access to technology does not make you a modern lawyer. Lawyers need a community to understand how to leverage technology to deliver modern legal services in the same way students need school to learn how to use a pen. 

So, if you want to be a modern lawyer, start by discarding any suggestion that you can develop these critical skills in self-isolation. Build a network of lawyers and advisors who can inform your practice modernization strategy. Be influenced by lawyers who reflect your approach to the practice of law. Invest in relationships that help you understand how to leverage technology most effectively in your practice. And, whenever possible, foster diverse communities. Not only is diversity critical to the identification of blindspots so critical to modern lawyering, you’d be surprised at how much you can learn from people who do not look or think like you.

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Romesh Hettiarachchi is a commercial lawyer in Toronto and the host of the Lawtrepreneur Briefing, a podcast exploring what makes a modern lawyer modern with lawyers, entrepreneurs and other professionals committed to the transformation of the legal profession.

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