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The Delta Model: simple, accurate, versatile (125)
By Natalie Runyon, Alyson Carrel, Cat Moon, Shellie Reid & Gabe Teninbaum on November 10, 2019
POSTED IN LAWYER DEVELOPMENT, LEGAL EDUCATION, LEGAL INNOVATION
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” — Albert Einstein
The members of the Delta Model working group imagine a world, not too far off, where law schools, legal employers and clients all share a common touchstone for lawyer development. For the last two years, we’ve been working on such a touchstone, which we call the Delta Model. Our current version is expressed in the graphic above.
Why did five legal industry professionals from different backgrounds and perspectives come together to build it? Each of us realized it was time for something that could unify our efforts. For more than 150 years, the intellectual scaffolding of legal education has remained largely unchanged. This is a significant problem when the delivery of legal services is undergoing a transformation that is steadily increasing in both momentum and speed. As a small working strongly connected to both legal education and practice, we saw the imperative of a new competency model that fits both the present and future. Further, we needed a model that was durable enough to guide professional development throughout one’s career.
The Delta Model is built off the notion of a T-shaped skills, which has long been used by consultants and engineers to describe the importance of knowledge workers with interdisciplinary skills. See, e.g., Morton T. Hanson, “T-Shaped Stars: The Backbone of IDEO’s Collaborative Culture,” Chief Executive, Jan. 20, 2010 (interview of Tim Brown, CEO of the design consultancy IDEO); Denis L. Johnson, “Scientist Become Managers — The ‘T’-Shaped Man,” IEEE Engineering Management Review (Sept 1978) (first known references to t-shaped skills).
Five years ago, a recent law graduate named R. Amani Smathers presented the idea of a T-shaped lawyer at the ReInvent Law conference in New York City, see “The T Shaped 21st Century Lawyer,” Vimeo (2014), and then published a more detailed version in an article for the ABA Law Practice Division, see “The 21st Century T-Shaped Lawyer,” Law Practice (July/Aug 2014). Smathers’ core insight was that legal problem solving increasingly requires combining a depth of mastery in law with complementary subject matters and skills, such as data analytics, technology, and project management. (Smathers’ career exemplifies this path, as she now works as a Senior Legal Solutions Architect at Davis Wright Tremaine in the firm’s award-winning De Novo Practice Group.)
In creating the Delta Model, we bundled top-of-the-T skills into a Business and Operations group. We then add a third piece to shine a spotlight on additional important skills related to Personal Effectiveness. These skills include relationship management, entrepreneurial mindset, emotional intelligence, communication, and character.
To visualize these three important areas (Law, Business & Operations, and Personal Effectiveness), we chose a simple three-sided figure, a triangle. Of course, the triangle is also reminiscent of the Greek character “delta” which symbolizes change. We thought this was a nice way to reflect something that is now a permanent part of all our professional lives.
Development of the Delta Model
Before we get into the use of the Delta Model as an education and professional development tool, we want to describe the process by which the Delta Lawyer Competency Model was conceived, as we were influenced by numerous talented colleagues.
Our original group of five members met while attending a 2018 working conference called “Legal-Services Quality, Innovation & Technology: Setting an Empirical Research Agenda.” The conference was hosted by Dan Linna (formerly of Michigan State University College of Law’s Legal RnD program and now with Northwestern Pritzker School of Law). Attendees came from across the legal industry and included legal technology innovators, law school faculty and students, and partners from well-known law firms. The Delta Model emerged from a design thinking challenge during the conference. Initially, the model had a different shape and was limited in scope.
But even in its earliest iteration, the group members were excited about what we saw as the opportunities the concept might present to help shepherd our field through the changing legal landscape explored during the conference. And so we agreed to stay in touch.
Over the next few months, we researched and explored what others had written. As our understanding grew, the model was refined. And just as the model changed, so did the group. As we discussed the model with colleagues, the positive feedback encouraged us to develop a research plan to determine the extent to which the model might, in fact, prove helpful. To test our theory, we hoped to validate the model by gathering input from the industry.
During the first phase of research, we interviewed experts who had previously conducted research on lawyer competencies. Bill Henderson (Legal Evolution and Indiana Law) was one of the first individuals we approached. We also spoke with Amani Smathers (coined T-shaped lawyer), Dan Linna (NWU Law), and Alli Gerkman (the late director of the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers).
The second phase included interviews with thirteen individuals representing a cross-section of those who hire attorneys, including hiring managers for in-house counsel, outside counsel and talent management leaders with expertise in early-career lawyers.
Finally, focusing on the same types of industry stakeholders, we expanded our sample size by using a survey designed by Thomson Reuters.
In the Thomson Reuters survey, we asked individuals to rate the importance of various skills and attributes associated with each of the three competency areas. The key insights gleaned from the research helped us to refine each side of the triangle.
As you can see from the graph below, Business Fundamentals and Project Management & Workflow were the top competencies in the Business & Operations category.
Source: Runyon & Carrel, Adapting For 21st Century Success: The Delta Lawyer Competency Model (Legal Executive Institute White Paper 2019), Figure 10.
Likewise, our research revealed that Personal Effectiveness competencies are critical to the success of 21st-century legal professionals. Between our interview and survey results, there was some variation among the top three competencies, which is likely a reflection of the varied career tracks and experiences of the respondents. Nonetheless, we’re confident that the combination of these two lists — Relationship Management, Entrepreneurial Mindset, Emotional Intelligence, Communication, and Character — create a concise and compelling summary of how to maximize personal effectiveness.
Source: Runyon & Carrel, Adapting For 21st Century Success: The Delta Lawyer Competency Model (Legal Executive Institute White Paper 2019), Figure 5.
To the extent possible, the Delta Model Working Group sought to create a competency model that was simple, accurate, and versatile. We think we’ve illustrated the first two elements. In the balance of this essay, we’ll each take a turn illustrating the model’s versatility.
Applying the Delta Model to other legal career paths (Natalie Runyon)
Over the course of our research, we heard feedback that the Delta Model implied that all lawyers needed equal depths of skill in each competency area. Balance of skills and abilities across a team might be ideal, but perhaps individuals could flourish with a varied mix of skills.
With this in mind, we developed a more dynamic version of the model. By creating a shifting midpoint, the model can reflect differing degrees of skill in each competency area. As shown in the graphic below, the model thus is able to reflect the changing skills needed for the area of law in which an individual works or the position they hold.
Source: Delta Model Working Group [click on to enlarge]
This new dynamic version of the Delta Model has the ability, and agility, to bridge the gap reflected in the crossroads at which the legal profession sits between traditional practice and the future of the profession.
By shifting the midpoint down and to the left (top right quadrant), we can increase the surface area associated with Business & Operations. This reflects new jobs and positions are being created to harness the innovation in the delivery of legal services driven by technology, such as legal solutions architects, who need business and operations skills that are significantly deeper than a traditional attorney. In contrast, a legal subject matter expert would emphasize Law (bottom left quadrant) whereas the truly exceptional manager or team leader might excel in factors related to Personal Effectiveness (bottom right quadrant).
In line with the design thinking principles, Delta Model’s adaptability and agility is one of its key strengths. Currently, we are identifying potential partnerships for additional research, including those that would explore practical applications, such as hiring, training, team building, and professional development.
However, based on feedback, we realize that the Delta Model has significant value and utility. Thus, in the following paragraphs, my fellow team members provide their insights into how differing audiences—law students, law schools, legal employers and mid-career lawyers—can use the Delta Model in its current form.
The Law Student Perspective (Shellie Reid)
The Delta Model is a great model for traditional students to see what areas they may need to work on to develop themselves further. However, as a nontraditional law student, it is even more exciting to see that the life experience and work skills that I’m bringing from beyond law school have value and can translate to the legal field.
In my experience, law schools and law students, perhaps aided and abetted by the legal media, disproportionately focus their attention of the BigLaw career track. Thus, this is why school, grades, participating in law review, class rank and things like that take on an extreme importance. Fortunately, the Delta Model communicates other routes for students to use as they plan for a career; further, it emphasizes the broader range of skills that are necessary for success in virtually any legal job.
Yet, what about getting that elusive first job? I personally think that the Delta Model will be a great way to market myself and my skills. While students are in school, the model can be a great way to think about what courses to take. With the model as a guide, students may look for classes that teach a diverse set of practical skills in addition to bar exam subjects. Students can also leverage the model to analyze the best extracurricular activities on campus in order to build various skills beyond the classroom. For example, participating in volunteer activities and clinics can build personal effectiveness skills. By emphasizing and highlighting those experiences on their resumes, it can convey a clearer picture of potential.
Students can use the model now as a way of showing recruiters that they have a holistic skillset designed for the 21st-century practice of law. For example, students can talk to recruiters about what they have done to build personal effectiveness skills or what courses or experiences they feel helped them to develop skills related to technology and innovation. If asked where they see themselves in the future, students can introduce the Model as a professional development tool and show the skills that they hope to build during their career.
What has been surprising to me is how many law school offerings align with Delta Model competencies. Of course, one must be willing to look for them and take courses beyond the typical bar prep courses. In particular, there are courses available that focus on the Business & Operations and Personal Effectiveness sides of the model. At my own law school, Michigan State, the Legal R&D Lab and the new Center for Law, Technology & Innovation, offers classes such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, entrepreneurial law, and business enterprises. These classes provide a legal basis but also build practical skills. Students in these classes use tools such as Clio, Slack, Trello, and Toggl that are used out in the market — yet another topic student can bring up at interviews.
Outside of taking classes under the Legal R&D umbrella, I am also involved with a student group called Legal Launch Pad. One goal of the group is to teach skills that will help students while they are in law school that will be extremely useful out in the field (e.g., mastering Styles in Microsoft Word). Something as simple as putting a table of contents into my research briefs this summer made me a wizard in the eyes of some attorneys, so why not help other students build those skills? Personally, I think that these skills should be incorporated into the research and writing courses.
Finally, the Delta Model nudges students to see value and opportunities outside the classroom. Particularly at law schools connected to a large university, such as Michigan State, there are many other resources available that students should utilize. For example, I recently went to a session on creating great headshots put on by the campus Tech Store. That skill is something that I will use throughout my career. For me, the Delta Model is all about making oneself into a more interesting and well-rounded person, which in turn translates into becoming a more effective lawyer.
The Mid-Career Lawyer Perspective (Cat Moon)
By the middle of your career, I can assure you, getting joy from your work will compensate for the many unavoidable hardships and sacrifices of legal practice.
To thrive as a lawyer, one of the key ingredients is self-awareness. Self-awareness is embedded in the Personal Effectiveness side of the Delta Model in the Emotional Intelligence competency and reflects the individual understanding, at a very personal level, of who you are, what your strengths are, what your passions and interests are, what are you curious about, and how you can structure your work and develop your professional identity in a way that supports and leverages those things.
The art of self-awareness is learning by being curious. Curiosity is the foundation for many of the Delta Model competencies such as Entrepreneurial Mindset and Relationship Management on the Personal Effectiveness side, and Business Fundamentals on the Business & Operations side. For example:
To maintain an entrepreneurial mindset, you have to be adaptive and be willing to learn as you go and without any previous experience.
To build effective relationships in the context of clients, the most successful relationships are ones where you have a solid understanding of the client’s business and how it makes money (i.e., Business Fundamentals from the of the Delta Model). And a central requirement for learning about your client’s business is curiosity and asking the right questions.
As someone with two decades of practice experience, the Delta Model guides my own professional development. As I’ve done, mid-career lawyers can use the Model to take stock of their experience and strengths while also considering new directions for growth — to create stretch opportunities that renew a passion for the practice. Or perhaps even lead to a completely new direction. In this way, the Delta Model helps mid-career lawyers continue to expand their competencies, with the added benefit of combating burnout that can result from career stasis.
The Law School Perspective (Alyson Carrel)
The Delta Model provides law schools a simple yet directive model from which to embrace a more holistic set of skills for students. The Delta Model builds off the efforts the MacCrate and Carnegie reports — two well-known studies of legal education — to encourage law schools to broaden the focus of the curriculum to include more experiential opportunities.
Unlike these previous efforts, however, the Delta Model doesn’t focus on any one skill set. Instead, it visualizes the value and interdependency of various skill sets. It recognizes the importance of legal doctrine, business, technology, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence without making one skill set any more important than the other. This model works whether I am talking with my legal technology colleagues or my dispute resolution colleagues because each of their areas of expertise is included in some space on the triangle.
As the former Assistant Dean of Law & Technology Initiatives, I have also used the Delta Model to map out our various initiatives, curriculum, and partnerships across the university and assess whether or not we were providing opportunities across the three competencies to best prepare our students for success. Applying the model, I was able to capture which courses taught skills in empathy and problem-solving, which courses taught project management and data analytics, which courses taught doctrine and legal research, and which courses might have touched on more than one or even all three areas of the Delta Model.
At Northwestern Law, our Innovation Lab course was an example that teaches all three competency areas of the Delta Model. The Lab pairs law students with computer science students to work with external partners (law firms, corporate legal departments, legal aid and public interest organizations to design a solution to a stated legal service delivery challenge. Law students in this class must research the law at the core of the challenge (The Law), interview stakeholders, work in teams, and problem-solve (Personal Effectiveness) and utilize process improvement, project management, and technology to develop a solution (Business & Operations).
And finally, I personally appreciate that the Delta Model represents any and all career options within the legal profession, even positions often referred to as allied professionals.
As someone who chose an alternative career path after law school, it is important to me that students understand the variety of options available to them after law school. As Shellie mentions above, students often feel pulled towards pursuing a career in Big Law as if that is the singular definition of success. This singular definition can unnecessarily limit students’ perceptions of their options and place undue stress to achieve something they aren’t necessarily interested in in the first place.
Through the dynamic version of the Delta Model, we can represent all sorts of careers by simply shifting the midpoint of the triangle to increase or decrease the corresponding surface area associated with each of the three competency areas. We can create multiple maps to represent multiple careers. And we can create maps for individuals representing their current skill set and compare it to a map representing their desired career path.
By comparing these different career maps, we can encourage and demonstrate the philosophy of a growth mindset. See Carol S. Dweck, Mindset (2006) (seminal work in psychology documenting the role effort and mindest in cognitively demanding work). Thus, in some instances, a faculty member may encourage and support a student in seeking out training and classes in those gaps where their current skill set does not yet match the skill set required.
The Legal Employer Perspective (Gabe Teninbaum)
I often hear legal organizations say, “We see that data analytics [or artificial intelligence or process improvement] is something that we need to learn and train our colleagues on. But how do we go about doing that?” They often assume they need a computer scientist on staff, an expert in data analytics or a black belt in Legal Lean Sigma, in order to incorporate these skills in their organization.
The good news, however, is that the barrier to incorporating the competencies on the Business & Operations side of the Delta model, which include Project Management & Workflow, Data Analytics, and Technology, is getting lower and lower every year. Over the last 10 years, tools and technologies have developed to make them relatively easy to learn, teach, and apply.
For example, we can use easily available software such as Microsoft Excel, to quickly analyze data and determine the profitability of a practice group’s associates’ month over month. Likewise, we can use the same familiar tools to compare one practice group’s associates to another. We just need to learn about pivot tables. The reality is that behind Microsoft Excel is a platform with amazing tools that allow you to take giant troves of data and to break it down into simple ways. To demonstrate, an employee could take a practice group’s associates’ billable hours from January 1 to December 31 and easily analyze the data in a pivot table.
The same thing is true for automation. Now, there are tools on the market that you can learn in just a few minutes that allow you on day one to start building and deploying things. For example, there is one that a colleague built called www.QnAmarkup.org, which is an open-sourced tool that builds expert systems for people through the creation of decision trees. At Suffolk Law school, we teach our students at orientation how to use it using a ten-minute video. By the end of a one-hour block, the students not only have learned how to use it, but they have also deployed an expert system to the web.
For many legal employers, the hard part is taking the time to explore nonlegal areas of modern practice that, from far away, look very complex and technical. Yet, up close, they are something that any motivated lawyer can learn.
For additional information on the Delta Model, please visit What is the Delta Model? and follow us on Twitter @DeltaModelLawyr.
Other articles referencing the Delta Model:
Natalie Runyon & Alyson Carrel, Adapting For 21st Century Success: The Delta Lawyer Competency Model, Legal Executive Institute White Paper (2019),
Natalie Runyon, “The ‘Delta’ Lawyer Competency Model Discovered Through LegalRnD Workshop,” Legal Executive Institute (June 2018).
Fernando Garcia, “New Skill-Enhancing Models to Become Tomorrow’s Lawyer in 2019,” Canadian Lawyer (Jan 2019).
Natalie Runyon, “Delta Model Update: The Most important Area of Lawyer Competency – Personal Effectiveness Skills,” Legal Executive Institute (Mar 2019).
Cat Moon, “A Sandbox for Legal Education,” altJD (Apr 2019).
Amanda Brown, “What Does the Rise of Innovation and Technology Mean for My Career,” Law Practice Today (Apr. 2019).
Susan Duncan, “The Skills Gap Part 1: What Competencies Will Lawyers need to Stay Relevant in the Future?,” Rainmaking Oasis (May 2019).
Alyson Carrel, “Legal Intelligence Through Artificial Intelligence Requires Emotional Intelligence: A New Competency Model for the 21st Century Legal Professional,” 35 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 2019 (July 2019).
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