Peter Connor, former GC and founder of Alternatively Legal, explains how you can become more creative, innovative, collaborate more with your business colleagues and add more value for your organisation.

Peter Connor, speaking at the Legal Inno'Tech Forum in Hong Kong

On March 14th, Peter will present: Innovation for Lawyers: Why and how to innovate, change & succeed. Specially designed and adapted for the In-House Community™, this one-day programme will provide a new direction and critical non-traditional knowledge and skills to help you innovate and change the way you work to add more value for your organisation.

Seats are strictly limited. To register for the meeting, click here.

For more information contact Patrick Dransfield

Recently there have been many different calls to action for in-house lawyers. “You must think creatively, leverage technology, and innovate.” Another one says: “You should collaborate more with your business colleagues and provide strategic business input not just legal advice.” According to some, you need to reinvent yourself and you don’t have long to do so.

You understand the importance of developing these competencies — because they are key to changing the way you work and adding more value for your organisation — but the question is how? If your current approach to training and development is not geared toward helping you become more innovative, collaborative, strategic, and creative, then on what specific skills, knowledge, and experience should you focus?

The Skills for the 21st Century General Counsel Report outlined a comprehensive list of what is required to be a general counsel. Although the GC role is unique, many of the skills identified will also be relevant to other in-house lawyers. The report highlighted the importance of non-legal skills and noted that “most of the skills (listed) are not new.”  But, in my experience, new skills — which I refer to as “non-traditional skills” — are essential for any in-house lawyer who wants to better collaborate with their business colleagues and help the legal department and the company innovate.

The T-shaped professional

In the absence of any authoritative framework to inform which skills are critical, I looked for something to support my personal opinion about the importance of these “non-traditional” skills. I came across a helpful concept from the business world: the T-shaped professional.

References to T-shaped professionals and skills have been around for a while, having been coined by David Guest in an article in The Independent in 1991 headlined: “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing”. So, what does it mean? In simple terms, it refers to someone who has deep domain expertise in one discipline, fused with skills and knowledge from other areas, that facilitates collaboration with specialists from different disciplines. According to a recent Cambridge University study, T-shaped professionals are “people who are entrepreneurial and capable of thinking in the many project roles they may fill in their professional life. In contrast to the specialized problem solvers of the 20th century who are sometimes called I-shaped professionals for their knowledge depth. The study
tshaped-chart01highlighted the growing imperative for service innovation through cross-functional collaboration but found that the main obstacle is a skills or knowledge gap. To address that issue, the report recommended that companies should actively develop more T-shaped professionals throughout the organisation.

When you apply this concept to the legal world, it is apparent that most lawyers fit the profile of the I-shaped professional, as shown in the graphic below. They have deep knowledge of, and expertise in, certain areas of the law and their training focuses on honing that knowledge and expertise. They might add some general leadership, business, or soft skills training but the primary purpose is to enhance their ability to do traditional legal work.

Is it time to consider broadening your training and development focus to become more like a T-shaped professional and if so what might that involve? This article explores that question by first examining why in-house lawyers should develop non-legal skills. Secondly, it will consider which “non-traditional” skills, competencies, and knowledge are important and why. Finally, it will briefly outline the challenge of sourcing training for these skills.

Why should in-house lawyers develop “non-traditional” skills?

The primary traditional skill of a lawyer is applying the law to solve problems and almost every lawyer develops a range of related skills (see sidebar) that can also be useful beyond just providing legal advice.

Traditional skillset

A lawyer develops skills that can be used beyond providing legal advice. For example:

  • Problem solving
  • Analytical
  • Communication
  • Persuasion/Advocacy

However, are these skills sufficient? One way to answer this question is to look at the type of work that in-house lawyers are now doing and might do in the future. Everyone’s situation is different but it is possible to make some general observations on how work is evolving for many in-house lawyers.

In some instances, the work traditionally performed by in-house lawyers is shrinking due to factors such as a conscious decision to stop doing some work, empowering the business to self-help, assigning work to contracts managers and others, outsourcing to firms and other service providers, or automating work. For some lawyers this evolution, especially the advance of technology, might be worrying. However much of the “displaced” work is low value work and this can be a positive development if it frees you to do additional higher value, varied, and interesting work.

On the other hand, as shown in the graphic on the right, the type of work performed by some in-house
tshaped-chart02lawyers is expanding as they take on non-traditional tasks and responsibilities. For example: 

  • GCs are assuming new roles in the company. “There is little argument that today’s GC has a much wider purview beyond the customary responsibilities as chief legal officer,” according to the 2016 NYSE Governance Services/Barkergilmore Survey Report. The GC is now “a more strategic business adviser”, said KPMG in a 2012 report, and sometimes assumes additional roles such as human resources, risk and government relations.
  • New roles being created in the legal department. You only have to look at firms and some larger departments to see a trend in new full-time or part-time roles for lawyers and others in areas such as operations, project management, innovation, process, technology, and data analytics.
  • New tasks for all lawyers. Progressive in-house lawyers at all levels are informally doing more than providing legal advice. They actively seek out opportunities to business partner in all areas of the business and in particular in areas such as data governance, crisis management, government affairs, and enterprise risk management.

In addition to changing roles and tasks that will result in in-house lawyers doing more non-legal work
tshaped-chart03there are a number of other significant trends which are relevant to the skills that will be needed. For example, in-house lawyers will increasingly:

  • Work more collaboratively with internal colleagues who are not lawyers to address business challenges over and above providing legal advice;
  • Be required to choose between a vast range of new and different legal service and product providers and then be able to work effectively with them;
  • Need to be able to not only use technology, but also apply and provide it for the benefit of business colleagues; and,
  • Be expected to innovate not just for the legal department but for the company as a whole.

It is quite obvious that traditional legal skills will not be sufficient for these purposes. According to Louise Pentland, PayPal’s general counsel, legal training is no longer sufficient training for working in-house. “The high-potential people in my team are able to work in parts of the business that call on different skills.”

This requirement for different skills becomes more critical the further you progress in your career because, often, the more senior you become the less time you spend advising on the law. However, junior lawyers would also benefit from developing non-traditional skills, in addition to traditional skills, early in their career. Indeed, if they do, especially in areas such as technology, they may be able to make more of an impact in the department and the organisation than they would otherwise.

What new knowledge, competencies, and experience are important?

In this new normal, in-house lawyers will benefit from not just “non-traditional” skills but also greater diversity in knowledge, experience, and competencies. This is mostly obvious, but before focusing on skills, I will briefly mention a few salient points.

Knowledge of the law has always been the bedrock for lawyers. Whereas lawyers working in law firms tend to specialize, many in-house lawyers benefit from a more general knowledge of a range of legal areas — especially if they aspire to a GC position. Also, in an increasingly global business world, it helps to develop a global understanding of the main legal areas that impact the business of your company — at least to a level to be able to “spot issues” and then seek more specific guidance as and when necessary.

Business knowledge, in particular, knowledge about the business of the company you work for, is important for in-house lawyers in order to provide effective traditional legal support. This knowledge assumes greater importance as you do more non-legal work.

Knowledge about technology is the other major area that is now crucial and will become increasingly so. Most in-house lawyers are reasonably competent at using the basic technologies relevant for their work. However, you also need to enhance your overall technology IQ and be able to make informed decisions about whether, and if so what, technology to acquire, develop, or leverage.

Integrity and judgment have always been critical competencies or qualities for in-house lawyers. However, in times where there is a premium on innovation and collaboration, other competencies — like empathy, foresight, adaptability, resilience, creativity, and emotional IQ — become increasingly important.

It will come as no surprise to hear that diversity of work and life experiences will provide you with unique insights and skills that you can apply to your work as an in-house lawyer. As AB InBev general counsel Sabine Chalmers suggested: “move out of legal altogether and go into investor relations, sales, or M&A. Working in a different geography is also very helpful.”

What non-traditional skills are important?

In selecting the skills to include in my Everything But The Law™ training program, the best reference point was my own experience as an in-house lawyer. The skills listed in the graphic below are the ones
that, more so than others, really helped me to innovate, collaborate and add significant value over and tshaped-chart04above providing legal advice. Learning how to do these things will help you become a T-shaped lawyer.

Below is a brief explanation of these non-traditional skills and an indication as to why they are important for in-house lawyers to develop.

Process improvement

A process is any sequence of events with a start and an end point and a series of actions and decisions in between. Most of what you do can be reduced to a process. Engaging outside counsel or putting an NDA in place with a customer are examples of processes.

Process improvement is about continually reviewing and optimising a process. There are different process improvement methodologies ranging from simple process mapping to Lean and Six Sigma. Process improvement might sound very industrial and perhaps ill-suited to what many lawyers believe to be an artisanal practice like law. However, if you learn how to use it, you can:

  • Help address problem areas and identify activities for Legal to start or stop doing;
  • Collaborate with business colleagues to improve business processes and, at the same time, transfer ownership of tasks that should not be done by lawyers, and;
  • Lay the essential groundwork prior to the adoption of any new technology.

Project management

Project management and process improvement are often incorrectly used interchangeably. They are related but distinctly different skills and have different use cases.

The best way to explain the difference is with an example. When a company acquires another company, it is a major undertaking or a project. To achieve an optimal outcome requires cross-functional collaboration and coordination to provide various deliverables on time and within budget. Project management refers to that coordination in relation to that project. Each acquisition may have its own unique considerations but a company can define an optimal process, with variations, to follow every time it acquires another business. Over time, it can refine and improve that process.

Confusion can also arise when law firms stress the importance of legal project management because from their perspective most matters they work on are viewed as a project. Much of what you do as an in-house lawyer would not qualify as a project. However, some transactions, disputes or initiatives do require project management. If you have the time and ability to project manage, it is an excellent way to collaborate with your colleagues and show business leadership.

Design (or creative/innovative) thinking

Design thinking is becoming a critical new skill in the business world. It is best known as an iterative process involving regular user feedback that anyone can follow to rapidly develop products and services that meet user’s real, as opposed to perceived, needs.

Lawyers are also starting to experiment with it. For example, when I was working in-house as head of global compliance a few years ago, I led a design thinking workshop to tackle the well-known problem of providing corporate employees with engaging online compliance training. I observed first-hand how it facilitated a reframing of the problem which resulted in the development of a breakthrough video product that I now market.

It is important to continue to refine your leadership skills so that you can not only manage the changes happening in the legal industry but also lead change for the legal team and for the company

Of all the different business and legal-specific innovation concepts, design thinking is particularly useful for lawyers because it helps you to see familiar problems in new ways through the eyes of your clients. It can be used for collaborative breakthrough innovations but also on an everyday basis for presentations, contract drafting, and providing advice.

Business partnering

Being viewed by colleagues as a business partner or trusted adviser is something that most legal departments rate very highly. But in my work helping departments all over the world, I am often told that business partnering is not really a skill but rather just “something we do.” That probably explains why, despite its undisputed importance, very few legal teams have received training on business partnering. As a result, lawyers working in the same team often have a completely different understanding of what it means. Some instinctively do it. Others have concerns and don’t do it at all.

I believe that if you do treat business partnering as a skill, and spend time on developing it, then it enables every lawyer to collaborate with business colleagues every day to enhance their value over and above providing legal advice.

Business leadership

Business leadership is really an advanced form of business partnering with a few fundamental differences. First, unlike business partnering, you need to create and invest additional time in business leadership initiatives. Secondly, it invariably requires a more strategic focus and an ability to lead a cross functional team. Thirdly, and the reason it is such an important skill, is that it can provide an opportunity to innovate and make a significant business impact.

Like everyday business partnering, business leadership is a skill that needs to be developed. General leadership training will help but there are many unique considerations for an in-house lawyer to identify a business leadership opportunity and then work collaboratively with, and lead, their business colleagues.

Risk management

It is often said that the primary role of a lawyer is risk management. Despite it being so important, very few in-house lawyers have received any formal training or guidance on risk management. The result is often inconsistency in advice between lawyers in the same team as well as missing opportunities to add value.

Risk management is a critical skill for in-house lawyers for a number of different reasons:

  1. If it is understood that risk identification is just the first in a multi-step process, then it can truly aid optimal business decisions.
  2. If you apply risk management to all types of risks, not just legal risks, you can enhance your value.
  3. Risk can and should inform what work you decide to do and how you decide to do it.
  4. Risk is one of the most crucial levers for innovation in the legal department.


Enhancing your ability to use technology for efficiency is a frequently discussed and important skill. Technology can also offer opportunities to innovate if you know how and when to adopt technology for the legal team and/or your business colleagues. To do that requires a consideration of many different factors and it requires a new set of skills. Some of these are touched on in the article Will law firms become software companies. These skills include the ability to:

  • Decide whether technology is the best solution or whether process improvement will suffice;
  • Prioritize and define your technology needs in a technology plan and roadmap for your department so that technology decisions are based on a strategic process and not a reaction to vendor pressure;
  • Develop and implement a data plan to capture operational and knowledge data in a structured way
  • Identify and re-purpose existing technologies used by the company;
  • Decide whether to make or buy software;
  • Write software code (although this is not an essential skill for all lawyers as explained in my article);
  • Manage the production of software in appropriate cases using internal and/or external resources;
  • Select and work with the most appropriate third party vendor and/or consultant, and;
  • Hire and manage tech-savvy team members (who may not be lawyers) where appropriate.

Very few lawyers have the above skills and related experience. Some might ask: “How difficult can it be? I’ll just figure it out.” But it is easy to get technology adoption wrong and the consequences can be significant. At best, it will mean a waste of time, money, and effort. At worst, it can create problems for the legal team and for any work colleagues who use the technology. The prudent thing to do is to enhance your skills in the above areas through training and/or seek guidance from those with relevant experience.

Change management and leadership

It is important to remember that using these new skills — and any innovations that arise as a result — necessarily involves change both for the legal team and, typically, also for your business colleagues. Learning how to apply change management principles maximises your chances of turning great ideas into lasting change.

Leadership has always been important. But, in times of change and if you want your team to change, it has become even more important and a lot more challenging. Many of you will have had leadership experience and training. However, rarely does that experience or training prepare you for new leadership challenges such as:

  • How to create an inspiring vision that represents a clear picture of the change you want your team to make;
  • Preparing an innovation plan as opposed to making ad hoc changes, and;
  • Leading a cross-functional virtual team.

It is important to continue to refine your leadership skills so that you can not only manage the changes happening in the legal industry but also lead change for the legal team and for the company.

Where can you source training on these non-traditional skills?

In-house lawyers have historically sourced training from law schools, law firms, legal conferences, and internal training provided by your company.

With some notable exceptions in North America, law schools around the world have been slow to respond with changes to their undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum to meet the demand for non-traditional skills and knowledge. As a result, the best that law students can do is to include relevant and available general business and technology subjects in their courses.

There is an ever-widening “gap” in the way that in-house and law firm lawyers work

Law firms will continue to provide robust training programs on traditional skills for lawyers fortunate to work for the firm. Firms also provide valuable legal updates for in-house legal departments. Progressive firms are starting to extend the scope of this training, beyond legal knowledge and skills, in an attempt to retain an ongoing and relevant training support role. The challenge for firms is that, for many of the reasons raised in the first section of this article, there is an ever-widening “gap” in the way that in-house and law firm lawyers work. As a result, traditional law firms don’t have the same need for, or relevant experience in, applying non-traditional skills. However, recently some firms have started hiring external trainers to provide training on some non-traditional skills for clients as well as their own employees.

The major challenge for legal departments, as well as the traditional training providers, is finding someone who not only understands these non-traditional skills but who also has relevant experience at applying the skills as an in-house lawyer. If you can’t find someone with that experience then the next best solution is to find someone who can at least teach you the theory. You can, as I did, learn how to apply the skills on the job through trial and error.


There is a lot of negative talk in the press about job prospects in the law and it may be that “traditional” legal roles in traditional firms and departments are in relative, if not absolute, decline. However, by taking steps to develop and apply critical non-traditional skills, you will, as much as possible, insure yourself against whatever changes may come your way in the future. It is how you can become more creative, innovative, collaborate more with your business colleagues and add more value for your organisation. At the same time, you will increase your marketability and you can do more varied and interesting work. This is also how you can become a T-shaped lawyer.


Reprinted with permission of the authors and the Association of Corporate Counsel as it originally appeared: Peter Connor, “The T-shaped Lawyer’. ACC Docket July Edition 2017 Copyright Association of Corporate Counsel. All rights reserved.

Article first published on on 23rd August, 2017
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