An article recently crossed my desk about paralegals and career development. The information could just as easily pertain to paralegals as it does to teachers, nurses, or sales personnel.
Those of us in the legal profession (about 40 years for me!) know that the field is renowned for being traditional, conservative, and extremely resistant to change. Consequently, many legal professionals tend to avoid the unfamiliar and focus on just one thing—their chosen area of expertise. However, at a time when creativity and ideas are vital to the success of a law practice, paralegals are increasingly re-evaluating their skill sets and working practices. As you consider your current status and future career, you should answer this question: Are you an I or a T?
In 2009, Microsoft Research studied personnel trends and stated “There may be no I in team, but every team needs to be made up of I-shaped people.”
I-shaped professionals typically have deep knowledge and experience in one area, but have not applied those skills to other areas, either by choice or lack of necessity. While this type of deep experience is important and I-shaped employees can do well in many workplaces, they usually do not excel in those in which high levels of collaboration are required.
I-shaped employees are specialists with a single focus. Way back in the good old days of the 20th century, I-shaped employees were highly knowledgeable in a specific area of expertise. While I-shaped professionals are often valuable members of the legal team, 21st century employers are often looking for employees who have broader skills and the ability to foster diversity within the organization.
Ted Rubin: If you don’t like change, you’re going to hate irrelevance! #NoLetUp
The term T-shaped person was first used in 1991 in a London newspaper editorial researching computer jobs. The basic description of a T is someone who has deep knowledge in one particular discipline (similar to the vertical or depth stroke of the T), as well as a corresponding range of knowledge across multiple disciplines that allows for collaboration (the horizontal stroke across the top of the T).
T-shaped people possess both depth and breadth in their skill set, enabling them to stand in someone else’s shoes and look at a problem from a different perspective. Several companies use the T-shaped concept to illustrate their desire to hire multidisciplinary works capable of responding creatively when placed in unexpected situations.
T-shaped workers are generally considered to be effective problem solvers and welcome innovation. They are analytical and have the ability to connect ideas across many disciplines, but they are also empathetic, making them great team players who work well with clients.
Having expertise in multiple fields helps T-shaped professionals find and excel in many niches, making them sought-after employees who practice in multiple areas of law or require an assistant who can wear more than one hat.
How do you from being an I to being a T? Is it possible?
Dr. Phil Gardner of Michigan State University, who researches and writes on recruiting trends, once described the ideal job candidate as a liberal arts student with technical skills or a business/engineering student with humanities training. In other words, a T-shaped candidate. But the educational systems of most countries are designed to produce I-shaped people. Is it even possible to reinvent yourself into a T-shaped professional?
To maximize their experience, today’s professionals can broaden their horizons by expanding the range of projects they are willing to take on, apply their existing skill set in new ways, and consider how transferable their current skills really are. While many paralegals choose to specialize in a certain area, the most successful ones are able to make their I into a T whenever the need arises.
Your company many want to take stock of the skills present within their organization. Do enough members of the firm display a T-shaped skill set? Has the company fostered a collaborative culture where personnel are not necessarily experts in everything, but have a variety of knowledge?
Where do you fit in?