For many of us lawyers, the path forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution is uncertain if not downright obscured by ambiguity—and only intensified by the increasingly rapid pace of change being wrought by technology. This has perhaps been the case for at least the past 50 years, as documented by this observation from Fenwick and West founding partner Bill Fenwick in his 1968 Vanderbilt Law Review student note, “Automation and the Law: Challenge to the Attorney”:
Computers and automation have carried organization to as high a level of efficiency as atomic energy has carried physical power. They can be expected to affect the relationship of the elements with which they work to the same degree atomic fission has affected its elements. It is submitted that most attorneys are not aware of the magnitude of changes that have taken place. Even worse, they have no basis on which to speculate about changes yet to come. Their awakening may be rude and jolting.
As a practicing lawyer for more than 20 years, I spent much of my time figuring out how to leverage technology in combination with my most human skills to supercharge my lawyering. From this lived experience, I understand the value of viewing lawyer competency broadly and holistically. And now, I spend my time in Vanderbilt Law’s Program on Law and Innovation teaching law students and practicing lawyers how to anticipate, plan for and lead through the many changes imposed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This is our profession’s present challenge: Rather than experience the “rude and jolting” awakening predicted by Fenwick, how might we proactively shape what it means to be a lawyer in the 21st century? Not only do I believe we can, I assert we must. The why, what and how? The case for the Delta Model for lawyer competency.
Highlighting the Challenges
Every fall in my Legal Problem Solving course, I begin with a deep dive into the many challenges we currently face in the legal profession. I do this because I believe law students—the future of our profession—deserve as much information as possible about the profession they are about to enter. This information empowers them to make informed and intentional choices as they design their professional paths. Practicing lawyers need this information, too, for the very same reasons.
Some of the myriad challenges highlighted in the ABA’s first “Profile of the Legal Profession” in 2019 include that the profession lacks diversity, remaining overwhelmingly white and male, especially at higher levels of leadership; legal professionals as a group suffer much higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, addiction and suicide compared to the general population; and, while rates of post-JD employment have risen, the average law student debt averages a staggering $145,500, having climbed 77 percent between 2000 and 2016.
These aren’t the only challenges our profession faces. As foreshadowed by Fenwick in 1968, rapid technological advances place increasing pressure on the work done by lawyers. Traditional lawyering has commonly included drafting documents, intermediating contracts, discovering information, finding precedents, analyzing and predicting outcomes, and advising on compliance. Now, technology does all these things, and in some instances better and at lower cost, than we human lawyers. (And if not yet better, it’s simply a matter of time.) What do we do in the face of this technological redundancy?
Finally, we must acknowledge a fundamental challenge in our civil justice systems. The 2016 ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services’ Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States outlined these challenges. Many respondents described the current access to justice gap as an emergency, with 80 percent (or more) of people facing a legal problem doing so without help from a lawyer. And according to the 2014 Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings From the Community Needs and Services Study by the American Bar Foundation, 85 percent of people with a civil legal problem never even enter a formal legal system for resolution.
I could digress into an entire treatise on how poorly most people fare when navigating our civil justice system. Instead, I simply assert that the data clearly establishes that the current system fails miserably those whom it exists to serve. And since lawyers are currently the sole group of people with the privilege to provide legal help, this failure is squarely on us.
What does all this mean for practicing lawyers? The best solutions to these many challenges can be found in the individuals doing the work. We make law better one lawyer at a time. Not by burying our heads in the sand and denying the changes demanded. Instead, we make law better when we seek clarity in the ambiguity and align the development of our competencies around a framework that supports our evolution into the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the Delta Model for lawyer competency.
What Is the Delta Model?
The Delta Model is a visual framework identifying and relating the core, critical skills required for legal professionals. The current iteration of the Delta Model arose from a design sprint in 2018, when working group members Alyson Carrel, Natalie Runyon and Shellie Reid, along with Jordan Galvin and Jesse Bowman, ideated the initial model by iterating on the “T-Shaped Lawyer” concept.
A triangle with three sides, the current Delta Model encompasses the Practice, the Process and the People competencies required to thrive as a 21st-century lawyer. The three sides in combination provide a holistic understanding of the myriad skills any given legal role is likely to require. The individual competencies included are based on both existing research and original quantitative and qualitative research performed by working group members. A white paper by Runyon and Carrel, Adapting for 21st Century Success: The Delta Lawyer Competency Model, is instructive.