Are you an I- or a T-shaped paralegal?

The legal profession is renowned for being traditional, conservative, and extremely resistant to change. Consequently, many lawyers (and some paralegals as well) tend to avoid the unfamiliar and focus on just one thing – their chosen area of expertise.

However, at a time when creativity and ideas are vital to the success of a law practice, paralegals are increasingly re-evaluating their skill sets and working practices. As you consider your current status and future career, you, too, are answering the question: Am I an I- or a T-shaped paralegal?

What it means to be an I-shaped paralegal

In 2009, Bill Buxton, principal scientist at Microsoft Research, said, “There may be no ‘I’ in team, but every team needs to be made up of I-shaped people.” I-shaped professionals typically have deep knowledge and experience in one area, but have not applied those skills to other areas, either by choice or lack of necessity.

While this type of deep experience is important and I-shaped employees can do well in many workplaces, including law firms, they usually do not excel in those in which high levels of collaboration are required.

I-shaped employees are specialists with a single focus. Twentieth-century paralegals were essentially I-shaped – highly knowledgeable in a specific area of expertise, such as a particular area of law or substantive duty (research or civil procedure, for example). While I-shaped paralegals are often valuable members of the legal team, 21st century law firms are often looking for employees who have broader skills and the ability to foster diversity within the organization.

About T-shaped paralegals

According to the American Bar Association, the term “T-shaped person” was first used in 1991 in a London newspaper editorial exploring computing jobs. The basic description of a T-shaped professional is a person that has deep knowledge in one particular discipline (the vertical or “depth” stroke of the T) as well as a corresponding range of knowledge across multiple disciplines that allows for collaboration (the horizontal or “breadth” stroke across the top of the T).

T-shaped people possess both depth and breadth in their skill set, enabling them to stand in someone else’s shoes and look at a problem from a different perspective. Several companies, such as IDEO and McKinsey & Company, use the T-shaped concept to illustrate their desire to hire multidisciplinary workers capable of responding creatively when placed in unexpected situations.

T-shaped paralegals are generally considered to be effective problem solvers, welcome innovation. They are analytical and have the ability to connect ideas across many disciplines, but they are also empathetic, making them great team players who work well with clients.

Having expertise in multiple fields helps T-shaped paralegals find and excel in many niches, making them sought-after employees for lawyers who practice in multiple areas of law or require an assistant who can “wear more than one hat.”

Going from an I to a T — is it possible?

Dr. Phil Gardner of Michigan State University, who researches and writes on recruiting trends, once described the ideal job candidate as a liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training”— in other words, a T-shaped candidate. But the educational systems of most countries are designed to produce I-shaped people. Is it even possible for paralegals to reinvent themselves into T-shaped people?

To maximize their experience, today’s paralegals can broaden their horizons by expanding the range of projects they are willing to take on, apply their existing skill set in new ways, and consider how transferable their current skills really are. While many paralegals choose to specialize in a certain area, the most successful ones are able to make their “I” into a “T” whenever the need arises.

Law firms should take stock of the skills present within their organization. Do enough members of the firm display a T-shaped skill set? Has the company fostered a collaborative culture where paralegals are not necessarily experts in everything, but have a variety of knowledge?

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What do you think, are you an I- or T-shaped legal professional? How does your ‘type’ enable you to contribute to your firm?

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