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The T-shaped lawyer: Building your knowledge in disciplines beyond the law

T-shaped Lawyer

Nothing in the law is guaranteed. And when you’re racking up law school debt, that thought is particularly scary.

Law students anxiously search for the perfect mix of academics and extracurricular activities in hopes of landing their first job. But the (not-so-secret) secret is that there’s no perfect formula to guarantee a job.

There’s no need to plan your life and career goals down to a T. Rather, focus on building your own T, and opportunities will follow.

The best advice I received in law school was to become a “T-shaped lawyer.” This concept was first discussed by R. Amani Smathers, a legal solution architect and an alumna of my law school, Michigan State University College of Law.

A T-shaped lawyer is one who has deep legal expertise (the vertical bar of the T) but also enough knowledge of other disciplines (the horizontal part of the T) to bring ideas from other fields to legal-related challenges and to better collaborate with experts in those areas.


Your horizontal bar

When building knowledge of other disciplines, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to become an expert. You just need enough of a foundational knowledge to work with experts in those fields. How can you get that?

1. Take cross-disciplinary classes. I built the horizontal part of my T through LegalRnD — The Center for Legal Services Innovation. LegalRnD’s cornerstone class, Delivering Legal Services: New Legal Landscape, gave students a foundation of legal service delivery, legal analytics, design skills, and legal entrepreneurship.

LegalRnD built upon this class with an in-depth curriculum:

  • Artificial Intelligence & Law
  • Quantitative Analysis for Lawyers
  • Entrepreneurial Lawyering
  • Litigation: {Data, Theory, Practice, & Process}

If you don’t have similar classes at your law school, research the possibility of taking classes at the business school or within other graduate programs. Most law schools allow a certain number of course credits to apply toward your law degree.

Other avenues to explore are webinars and continuing legal education classes presented by law firms, bar associations, or companies. If these educational opportunities aren’t free, organizers may be willing to waive or significantly reduce the fee for law students.

2. Work with professionals in other disciplines. Another way to expose yourself to other disciplines is by collaborating with professionals in those areas. Participating in a legal hackathon will put your cross-disciplinary skills to the test.

Hackathons present challenges to solve within a limited time frame, and the challenges presented are problems that exist in the legal field. Solutions submitted take the form of websites, software applications, or even proof-of-concept pitches.

For example, when LegalRnD participated in Code the Deal Hackathon, I managed a team of four law students and two developers to solve a landlord-tenant challenge. Our grand-prize-winning solution was an Android application that scanned leases and informed tenants of potential legal issues. With a limited understanding of coding, I worked with developers to wire-frame how the law students wanted the application to work. As the developers were coding, we law students did research into the applicable laws to put in the application.

Vertical Bar

Your vertical bar

Yes, you, as a law student, can become an expert in a subject matter of the law. Even to seasoned attorneys in those areas, you can still make a name for yourself by being more knowledgeable than your peers or the general population of attorneys who may not have experience in those subject matters. Here are ways to achieve that.

1. Get credit for building experience. The vertical part of my T was built on an expertise in information privacy and security law and litigation practice. At my school, students interested in litigation could apply to the Trial Practice Institute, a two-year litigation certificate program.

In the program, I worked through full civil and criminal cases from pretrial work to summary judgment arguments to complete jury trials. To supplement traditional litigation skills, the program also trained us in electronic evidence presentation, working with expert witnesses, and alternative dispute resolution.

To get additional training in alternative dispute resolution, I completed a civil mediation certification class and competed on the arbitration team, earning a third-place national finish. While these experiences may have required more work throughout the semester than black-letter law classes, the trade off in time was worth it because I can apply the practical skills I learned to any area of law.

If your school offers a limited number of practical skills classes or extracurriculars, doing an externship with a public interest organization can help you gain experience. If you can’t work for free or pay for externship credits, consider applying for programs like the Equal Justice America Fellowship, AmeriCorps JD, or Access to Justice Technology Fellowship, which provide things like stipends.

2. Be creative to find learning opportunities. Getting experience in privacy and data security law took some ingenuity because MSU Law only had one class on the subject. Since I was the only student in the school who wanted to pursue a career in this field, I had to create learning opportunities for myself.

Most, if not all, of those opportunities came from connecting to the community of information privacy and security law attorneys and organizations on Twitter and LinkedIn. Regardless of what area of law you want to practice in, social media is becoming an important tool, and you should learn to use it effectively.

Becoming a T-shaped lawyer won’t guarantee you a post-graduate job, but it will maximize your chances. While building legal expertise, your knowledge of other disciplines will allow you flexibility in your career. There’s no need to plan everything down to a T when you can just build your own.

Irene Mo Irene is a NextGen Fellow at the ABA Center for Innovation. Her fellowship project focuses on the privacy and data security risks faced by low-income and marginalized individuals. Formerly, Irene was a Summer Associate at Edelson PC in Chicago and a Legal Intern at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. She is a licensed attorney in Michigan and has expertise in legal operations. Before law school, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.