The 21st Century Attorneys, Law Firms and “T-Shaped” Quality Skills

Chris Uwaje,[1] in his book “e-Knowledge-time is running out”, posits

“as we delve deeper into the information society kaleidoscope, unless there are proper guidelines expressly defined under relevant IT laws, one can expect a flood of difficult-to-resolve litigations capable of sending judges and lawyers back to school as they would, henceforth be dealing with disputes emanating from the essential components of computing systems in their courts, largely bordering on authentication of digital evidence pertaining amongst others, on online banking and payment system, digital signatures for transactions in the cyber space, email fraud, digital libel, digital medical issues of health, etc.”

We agree no less with this postulation and hasten to add that as the Bar and the Bench foray into the digital hemisphere, they must be prepared to be guided by scientific logic, with abundant commitment, positively focused to identify issues, and connect ideas across disciplines.

It is no understatement to say that the legal profession world-wide, is undergoing change at a pace never experienced. No doubt, digital disruption occasioned by rapid increase in the use of mobile devices has compromised the continuation of existing ways of thinking with its inherent dilemma.

The digital dynamics of the 21st Century, no doubt underpins the essence of developing analytical skills to meet the challenge of legal practice inherent in the new world legal order. It is now obvious that we live in an increasingly technologically-driven world. We certainly feel it every day. We do not have to live in Silicon Valley to experience the fact that the world is getting more and more technology-centred, focused and driven. Although we can debate the pros and cons of this reality, we cannot deny the fact that the world has changed very quickly in head-spinning ways from a commute-centric consciousness to a network-centric environment.

The rapid pace of change is undeniable, and it is likely that generations growing up amidst such change will be amazingly adaptable. Although, most of us may be considered 19th or 20th century men and women trapped in the 21st century virtual reality, we really do need to adapt to live in a new world that really demands comfort with, and access to technology.

Law practice today, faces formidable, but complex problems, phenomena and concepts that resist understanding or resolution when approached from single disciplines. The capacity to integrate knowledge and modes of thinking in two or more disciplines requires the legal professional to have basic knowledge of adjacent connecting fields so as to readily adapt to address the novel and complex problems that often arise in litigation. In other words, the lawyer must possess the “I” shaped and “T” shaped quality skills. Suffice to say that the terms, “I” shaped and “T” shaped persons, are skill metaphors used to describe the abilities of persons in a workplace. Individuals with the abilities to bridge the traditional boundaries between disciplines have been referred to as “hybrid,” “boundary spanners” or “T-shaped” professionals. In contrast, the “I-shaped” individuals specialise in one specific area. They are no less skilled, but simply, experts in just one field with deep disciplinary knowledge.

“The I-shaped professional is highly versed in a specific area of expertise and learns by drilling more deeply into a particular field whilst the T-shaped person has broader skills and knowledge and learns by linking up different perspectives from different specialties”.[1]Responding to global change in legal service delivery, represents an unprecedented challenge that calls for interconnected system of values, rules and knowledge. “Expert computer systems represent the future of legal practice. The attorney, who best understands the benefits and limitations of such systems, while remaining undaunted by nagging fears of computers, will have a significant advantage in completing a wide variety of professional tasks”[2]. To be relevant in that order, lawyers should be knowledgeable across disciplines with the ability to examine critically, synthesise and evaluate knowledge across a broad range of disciplines.

The 20th century lawyers were “I-shaped”, i.e., they had deep legal knowledge and skills but lacked the T-shaped character. A T-shaped lawyer, though has deep legal expertise, also has the ability to collaborate across many disciplines such as technology and forensics. The basic idea is that a T-shaped professional has a depth of knowledge in one discipline (the vertical stroke of the “I”) and a breadth of knowledge across multiple disciplines that allows for collaboration (hence the horizontal stroke of the “T”). As lawyers’ grapple with global economic and technology forces that have revolutionised the business and information access in the past decades, firms with T-shaped lawyers will be best able to adapt and provide services in ways that are more tailored to their clients’ precise needs and for fees that bear a more reasonable relationship to the value provided. Therefore, the 21st century lawyers must be T-shaped.

Digital devices (and thus digital evidence) are ubiquitous. Evidence in digital format appears in every area of law. Whether you deal only with matrimonial causes or crime or housing or legal negligence or Wills, you will be expected to advise your client in relation to digital evidence. Any lawyer who fails to ask his clients for facts otherwise emanating from their laptop, Blackberry, mobile systems (such as cell phones), memory sticks or iPod, where such is expedient, risks an action in negligence if such evidence could have been made available and would have been relevant in the proceedings, but was not forthcoming because of the failure to provide adequate or any advice to the client in respect to this area of evidence due to insufficient knowledge.

The call for T-shaped lawyers is a refinement call for hybrid or multidisciplinary professionals. Having deep expertise or knowledge in multiple fields can help a lawyer find a niche. T-shaped lawyers, by contrast, do not necessarily need deep expertise in any field besides law. However, they need a capacity to communicate and collaborate across disciplines which require a breadth of knowledge and skills in different areas.

So, what are the skills that the 21st century lawyer should have on the horizontal top bar of his/her T? As clients demand faster, better and cheaper services, basic knowledge and skills in the areas of technology, forensics and data analytics can make a lawyer more valuable.

With the amount of electronic data produced, no 21st century trial lawyer is likely to succeed without knowledge of eDiscovery issues and its applicable methodology. The 21st century courts would not only handle electronic data as mainstream discovery process, they would also be clearly unwilling to tolerate destruction of relevant electronic evidence.

In R. v. Rose,[3] Fraser-Martin J gently admonished a defence counsel who demanded hard copy disclosure because he was not computer literate. According to the judge, “it is probably now incumbent on those of us who are of a somewhat older generation to get on with the program.” What that implies is that lawyers must now stay sufficiently attuned with new technologies to be able to serve the needs of clients in an electronic world.

A competent litigator must understand such electronic concepts as metadata and native file types, and what they mean for document requests, production and analysis. He must also competently discuss technology-assisted review or predictive coding and defend the methods that their eDiscovery providers use. The 21st century lawyers, in addition to their legal expertise, must also have enough knowledge in different areas of technology and forensics to enable them identify issues, understand concepts, contribute to teams and connect ideas across such disciplines.

Above all, every lawyer needs basic knowledge of how the Internet works; how computer systems, tools and storage functionality are preserved; how digital forensic investigations are conducted; understanding forensic expert evidence and a host of other electronic dynamics relevant to 21st century litigation.

[1]          Chris Uwaje is a fellow of the Institute of Analysts and Programmers of United Kingdom; a Fellow, Institute of Certificate Professional of the United Kingdom, Member, Institute of Management Specialist of Britain and council member of the Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria. He is a Fellow of Nigeria Computer Society. Past President of the Information Technology Association of Nigeria and Past President of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria
[2]          Richard Gruner, Thinking like a Lawyer: Expert Systems for Legal Analysis 1 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 259 (1986). Available at:
[3]          R. v. Rose [2002] Q.J. No. 8339, 2002 CarswellQue 2936 (Que. S.C.); leave to appeal refused 2003 CarswellQue 67 (S.C.C.)

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Emeka Arinze

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