From ‘T-shaped lawyers’ to ‘Poly-technic professionals’: the ‘Many-skilled’ future of legal careers

The legal services sector has been evolving quickly in the past 5-7 years, with a fundamental shift in what represents ‘value’ to clients, both in terms of the nature of the service itself and how it is delivered. Disruption and change have been driven by increasing client demands of ‘more for less’, and new types of service providers have entered the market, meaning greater competition (and price pressure) as regulatory changes mean lower barriers to entry. Also, the very nature and forms of the traditional service providers have changed, with firms building on adjacent services and exploring how technology can support increased needs for efficiency and service quality. In this sense, the boundaries between different types of professional service firms have ‘blurred’, with the Big 4 ‘accountancy’ or ‘advisory’ firms now often employing more lawyers than many traditional law firms, and consolidation meaning that new technology arms or additional consultancy services have been added to the core businesses of increasingly broader legal practices.

As part of our practitioner research with partner organisation Meridian West over the last year, we have explored this ‘disruption’ in the structure of professional services in particular from a strategic talent development perspective. We have considered questions such as how firms will best develop the capability to create their ‘firm of the future’. How they can enable their senior leaders to lead the changes needed to create these new models, and the impact of these changes on career pathways both for those entering the professions and for the senior leaders of firms. The changes in the structure of career pathways comes at a time when retention of talent is an increasingly high priority, with many firms finding it difficult to retain talent as young professionals seek a very different career offer than the long (and increasingly longer), linear pathway towards partnership.

future career journey for professionals

Our research over the last year has found that, as firms are evolving their business structures, career routes and options are gradually becoming less linear. New career pathways and roles are opening up, with some law firms now offering moves into the new technology and service innovation teams,[1] and others building in placements to these new areas of their businesses from early on in a trainee’s time with the firm. In other words, the beginnings of ‘career lattice’ style pathways are now being seen with more optionality (see right), which can help to address some of the desire for less linear career paths.


These changing pathways and roles mean that firms are also needing to reconsider the skill-sets and mind-sets which they build in their teams, especially as client feedback indicates that ‘value’ will come increasingly from advisers who possess broader skill-sets, beyond the pure technical expertise and knowledge which clients can now access in different ways (sometimes at the press of a button).

Our research found clients speaking increasingly about value being created when advisers can help them to see trends in their industries, to partner and collaborate around their more complex business problems, and advisers who are data aware and knowledgeable of how such technology can drive efficiency (but not necessarily asking them to be writers of the code). Another main request was for lawyers who are curious and want to problem solve, ‘asking’ as well as ‘telling’, as increasingly a client’s business challenges do not have a straightforward ‘answer’.

In the past, the career paths of lawyers (and professionals more generally) have often been spoken about in terms of being ‘T-shaped’: where they developed a deep expertise which was then utilised for a significant proportion of their careers before broadening and building in a wider, cross-functional awareness – a broader perspective which was often needed especially if they were moving into a senior leadership or Board role.

Instead, we believe that all the shifts in the market noted above point towards a future lawyer being what we have called a ‘Poly-technic’ or ‘Many-skilled’ professional, whose career, mind-set and skill-set is more broad and varied from its earliest phases. For these lawyers of the future to succeed in adding value to clients, we foresee that they will need to see their identity as more fluid: less defined by their technical expertise, being open to moving through a number of different roles in their career and, to flourish in these different roles, being committed ongoing learners (see below).

The ‘Poly-technic’ or ‘Many-skilled’ professional

Poly-technic professional pathway

To help people with this shift, we believe that Managing Partners and their Heads of Talent will therefore need to adopt an equally agile approach to talent development to deliver client value, and to develop and retain their future professionals, considering:

  • How they can support their team members to successfully navigate more regular role transitions as they create their increasingly individual and ‘lattice’-like careers
  • How their Learning & Development (L&D) teams can move from a focus on ‘creating’ specific programmes to an approach of ‘curating’ a series of rich learning resources from both internal and external sources – creating a ‘personal learning cloud’[2] to support everyone on their individual career pathway
  • How the firm can maximise experiential learning and practical ‘learning experiments’ (such as placements within or outside the firm) for individuals at all career stages. In other words, ensuring that the ‘L&D’ focus is more ‘OD’, on the 70% of ‘on-the-job’ learning in the 70-20-10 model of personal development. As the legal sector changes rapidly, this practical development focus will enable lawyers to ‘act themselves into a new way of thinking’ much more effectively than ways which invite them to ‘think themselves into a new way of acting’

[1] A. Messios, “Linklaters begins moving associates into permanent tech roles: the firm is looking for tech savvy associates to leave the partner track and work on its ambitious AI project” (Legal Week, January 17 2019).

[2] For the ‘personal learning cloud’, see most recently M. Moldoveanu & D. Narayandas, ‘The future of leadership development’ (HBR, 2019).