Take Charge of Your Career With a Competency Model

Cat Moon

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Cat Moon is Director of Innovation Design for the Program on Law & Innovation at Vanderbilt University.

Prior to 2020, the legal industry already faced at least three major existential challenges. Attorney well-being — physical, emotional, and psychological — is suffering in many law firm cultures. Corporate clients regularly report dissatisfaction with the ways legal services are structured and delivered. And access to legal representation remains out of reach for the majority of people in our country who need it. In other words, the status quo already was not serving attorneys, clients, or society very well. And then came the pandemic.  

Now we find ourselves in the liminal space between the old ways of doing things and what the legal industry might become next, and the only thing we know for sure is that we will need to make big changes to respond to the demands of a changing economy and foster sustainable relationships with all stakeholders. The pandemic is forcing us to make practical changes, such as setting new remote-work policies. But what if we think bigger? What if we treat this strange, disruptive moment as an opportunity to soul-search and design post-covid work lives that create more meaningful careers, deliver a better client experience, and improve access to life-changing legal services?

While many of those big changes will need to happen at the institutional level, individual lawyers also have a role to play in taking a more proactive approach to their careers and the meaning of their practice. In our work providing executive education to legal professionals, my colleague Alyson Carrel and I wanted to create a visual competency model that could guide practicing lawyers to think about how they want to develop their careers for the future of law. The Delta Model is our answer, a tool for legal professionals who want to chart a course for thriving in the 21st century.

What is the Delta Model?

The Delta Model is a flexible competency model for legal professionals. Its equilateral triangle shape demonstrates that the modern lawyer has to think about her or his professional formation across three different categories: Practice, Process, and People.

Practice: Your knowledge of your practice area is the foundation of your work. Maintaining and growing that knowledge, and communicating it, takes consistent, proactive planning.

Process: Clients depend on you to deliver your legal services efficiently and effectively. In the 21st century, that involves the use of technology.

People: Behind every business relationship, whether with a client, colleague, or opponent in court, is a person. Thriving lawyers take their responsibility to relate to and understand others seriously, and develop interpersonal skills alongside other professional competencies.

The three aspects of the Delta model interact with and depend on each other. Individual lawyers can use this tool as the basis for an ongoing process of reflection, assessment, and planning: Where am I now, and where do I want to go? Am I spending too much of my time on one area and not enough on another? What steps could I take to bring my Delta back into balance?

Organizations also might customize this tool to demystify the competencies necessary to succeed in various roles. What would a Delta for a practice group leader at your firm look like? What about an equity partner?

Why is this work important?

The pandemic and concomitant market turmoil is shining a bright light on the need for all professionals to understand and hone the competencies necessary to succeed in their field. Most lawyers and firms devote the lion’s share of their time to their practice, but staying up to date on technology and developing interpersonal skills that facilitate relationships with people from many backgrounds and perspectives are equally important. In fact, whatever terminology or model you might use, building your competencies in managing practice, process, and people is an ethical obligation. Here’s how pursuing ongoing professional development in all three areas can make an impact on your own career and the industry as a whole:

  • You will continue to develop your skill sets to serve clients.

While in some ways the practice of being a lawyer is the same as it has always been, the process by which lawyers deliver that practice to clients is changing radically. Many of the tried-and-true methods that have worked for lawyers and law firms in the past are far less effective for selling and delivering legal services in a market that increasingly relies on data-based decision-making and technological tools that increase efficiency.

Continuous learning means skating where the puck is going instead of just looking backward all the time.

First, lawyers must listen to the sectors they serve by consuming surveys of CLOs and GCs to understand the state of their industry and the expectations those clients have for the outside firms that serve them. Then they can take a clear look at how their current service delivery may be falling short of those expectations. Finally, they can identify the new skills and technological tools they need to learn, and relationships they need to build, to shape their work going forward, and begin the work of moving toward their targets. Not only do lawyers have an ethical obligation to stay current and competent, but doing so will vastly increase their chances of thriving in their practice even as the circumstances under which they deliver services may change.

  • You will create transparency and demystify “insider information.”

Traditionally, many lawyers have learned how to navigate their careers and build their books of business through access to informal mentorship and sponsorship. Maybe you were raised in a family of lawyers and learned from a young age how legal work and firm life — and firm politics — operate. Maybe you got an opportunity for a summer internship because your uncle was friends with the partner overseeing hiring, and because of this that partner took you under his wing and introduced you to future clients. Likewise, the knowledge about what it takes to advance in a given firm has long been guarded as secret by the people at the top, leaving some or all up-and-coming lawyers in the dark.

As we all now understand, this type of “access advancement” is problematic for a few reasons. First, access is not equally distributed. In particular, lawyers of color, women and members of other underrepresented groups tend not to be invited to conversations that happen on the golf course, for example, where more senior partners pass on helpful information and advice. And second, a lack of transparency about the criteria that determine advancement makes it much more likely that not everyone is being held to the same standard on decisions about promotion, work distribution and compensation.

As more individuals and organizations across the legal industry — from law students through associates, partners, and firm leadership — do the work of assessing their current competencies across practice, process, and people, and chart their course toward developing new competencies crucial for success going forward, they create more transparency and access to valuable information. Our industry can move away from access for the lucky few and toward a system that empowers lawyers from all backgrounds to use their gifts and succeed.

  • You can take control of your career.

Many attorneys rely on their firms to guide their professional development and wait for someone to illuminate the next steps they should take in their careers. This is a mistake. While an individual attorney cannot control the circumstances that shape the path, he or she can take responsibility for creating a map to navigate that path. Regardless of where you work, whether the culture is supportive or not, you have agency. Using a competency model to plan your learning can make this powerful and empowering message a practical reality: it gives you a place to start.

For example, reflecting on your current competencies and understanding competencies you need to develop (by consulting a list of competencies such as this one, published by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver) can lead you to be more intentional about how you focus your continuing legal education (CLE). Too many lawyers sign up for whatever is available to satisfy the requirements ahead of the deadline. But what if you expected more from the content you consume in your professional formation? What if you adopted a growth mindset and intentionally planned how to use those 15 hours to develop new skills that truly matter to clients and position you to take on new opportunities in your firm?

But formal CLE courses aren’t the only or even the primary place where lawyers learn how to improve their practice, processes, and relationships with key people. Research shows that professionals learn more by doing their work, and engaging with mentoring and coaching in the real world, than they do in these professional development seminars. Becoming more intentional about your professional formation means actively looking for learning opportunities all around you. How can you seek out stretch assignments? Who are the colleagues you would like to learn from, and how can you create opportunities to work with them? Can you schedule an informational interview with someone doing interesting work you would like to learn more about? Even in a firm with a difficult culture, it’s possible to create your own path to growth by constantly seeking these opportunities to stretch and grow.

Many lawyers think about professional development as something they will do when work slows down. But there is no time like today to assess where you are, determine where you want to go, and figure out what you need to get there. Intention begets success and thriving!