The Case for the Delta Model for Lawyer Competency

I’m breaking from the microblog format of altJD to share a longer piece I wrote for ABA’s Law Practice Magazine (July 2020). Hidden behind a paywall, I make the article in its entirety available here. – CM

I’ve often observed that my great- great-great-uncle, Elijah Hise, a lawyer who in the 1850s served as the chief justice of the (now) Kentucky Supreme Court, would likely feel quite at home in the practice of law in 2020. Other lawyers typically respond to my observation with quizzical looks and questioning. To which I note that but for a few widely adopted technology tools, the systems within which lawyers work today are all products of the Second Industrial Revolution—Uncle Elijah’s era.

While the rest of the world has evolved into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the legal profession and justice systems in the United States most decidedly have not. In fact, in many ways, we actively work against this evolution as we cling to outmoded ways of working along with legal regulatory structures and justice systems literally breaking from strain imposed by demands of the modern world.

For many of us lawyers, the path forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution is uncertain if not downright obscured by ambiguity—and only intensified by the increasingly rapid pace of change being wrought by technology. This has perhaps been the case for at least the past 50 years, as documented by this observation from Fenwick and West founding partner Bill Fenwick in his 1968 Vanderbilt Law Review student note, “Automation and the Law: Challenge to the Attorney”:

Computers and automation have carried organization to as high a level of efficiency as atomic energy has carried physical power. They can be expected to affect the relationship of the elements with which they work to the same degree atomic fission has affected its elements. It is submitted that most attorneys are not aware of the magnitude of changes that have taken place. Even worse, they have no basis on which to speculate about changes yet to come. Their awakening may be rude and jolting.

As a practicing lawyer for more than 20 years, I spent much of my time figuring out how to leverage technology in combination with my most human skills to supercharge my lawyering. From this lived experience, I understand the value of viewing lawyer competency broadly and holistically. And now, I spend my time in Vanderbilt Law’s Program on Law and Innovation teaching law students and practicing lawyers how to anticipate, plan for and lead through the many changes imposed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This is our profession’s present challenge: Rather than experience the “rude and jolting” awakening predicted by Fenwick, how might we proactively shape what it means to be a lawyer in the 21st century? Not only do I believe we can, I assert we must. The why, what and how? The case for the Delta Model for lawyer competency.

Why the Delta Model?

Every fall in my Legal Problem Solving course, I begin with a deep dive into the many challenges we currently face in the legal profession. I do this because I believe law students—the future of our profession—deserve as much information as possible about the profession they are about to enter. This information empowers them to make informed and intentional choices as they design their professional paths. Practicing lawyers need this information, too, for the very same reasons.

Some of the myriad challenges highlighted in the ABA’s first “Profile of the Legal Profession” in 2019 include that the profession lacks diversity, remaining overwhelmingly white and male, especially at higher levels of leadership; legal professionals as a group suffer much higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, addiction, and suicide compared to the general population; and, while rates of post-JD employment have risen, the average law student debt averages a staggering $145,500, having climbed 77 percent between 2000 and 2016.

These aren’t the only challenges our profession faces. As foreshadowed by Fenwick in 1968, rapid technological advances place increasing pressure on the work done by lawyers. Traditional lawyering has commonly included drafting documents, intermediating contracts, discovering information, finding precedents, analyzing and predicting outcomes, and advising on compliance. Now, technology does all these things, and in some instances better and at lower cost, than we human lawyers. (And if not yet better, it’s simply a matter of time.) What do we do in the face of this technological redundancy?

Finally, we must acknowledge a fundamental challenge in our civil justice systems. The 2016 ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services’ Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States outlined these challenges. Many respondents described the current access to justice gap as an emergency, with 80 percent (or more) of people facing a legal problem doing so without help from a lawyer. And according to the 2014 Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings From the Community Needs and Services Study by the American Bar Foundation, 85 percent of people with a civil legal problem never even enter a formal legal system for resolution.

I could digress into an entire treatise on how poorly most people fare when navigating our civil justice system. Instead, I simply assert that the data clearly establishes that the current system fails miserably those whom it exists to serve. And since lawyers are currently the sole group of people with the privilege to provide legal help, this failure is squarely on us.

What does all this mean for practicing lawyers? The best solutions to these many challenges can be found in the individuals doing the work. We make law better one lawyer at a time. Not by burying our heads in the sand and denying the changes demanded. Instead, we make law better when we seek clarity in the ambiguity and align the development of our competencies around a framework that supports our evolution into the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the Delta Model for lawyer competency.

What is the Delta Model?

The Delta Model is a visual framework identifying and relating the core, critical skills required for legal professionals. The current iteration of the Delta Model arose from a design sprint in 2018, when working group members Alyson Carrel, Natalie Runyon, and Shellie Reid, along with Jordan Galvin and Jesse Bowman, ideated the initial model by iterating on the “T-Shaped Lawyer” concept.

A triangle with three sides, the current Delta Model encompasses the Practice, the Process, and the People competencies required to thrive as a 21st-century lawyer. The three sides in combination provide a holistic understanding of the myriad skills any given legal role is likely to require. The individual competencies included are based on both existing research and original quantitative and qualitative research performed by working group members. A white paper by Runyon and Carrel, Adapting for 21st Century Success: The Delta Lawyer Competency Model, is instructive.

© Alyson Carrel

The Practice dimension forms the foundation and is made up of traditional legal practice skills including issue spotting, legal analysis, issue framing, legal research, and drafting. The Process dimension forms the right side of the Delta and includes skills like data analysis, technology fluency, project management, process improvement, human-centered design, and business fundamentals. The People dimension forms the left side of the triangle and includes human skills such as an entrepreneurial mindset, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, self-regulation, communication, and collaboration.

While “thinking like a lawyer” traditionally included those competencies along the Practice base of the Delta, these skills alone will not move us from the Second into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The research behind the Delta Model affirms that skills on the Process and People side are critical to both fulfilling our ethical obligations to those we serve and to thriving in our work. And this is further affirmed by research on the future of knowledge work that consistently emphasizes how our uniquely human skills will be key to avoiding redundancy as technology continues to expand in scope.

The name “Delta” was chosen to explicitly acknowledge that change is elemental to the framework—that we will need to adapt our competencies over time as our roles as lawyers evolve to respond to the ever-changing world in which the law operates.

The change element also references the agile nature of the framework as it applies to any given role because there is no single model of lawyer competency that extends across roles. The equilateral Delta treats all three sides as having equal value. However, the center point of the model is designed to shift, acknowledging that certain roles require an emphasis on some skills over others. The graphic below reflects how different roles produce different Delta triangles, reflecting emphases on different competencies.

©Alyson Carrel

How can YOU use the Delta?

The model’s ability to reflect different combinations and levels of skills in a clear, visual way is elemental to the purpose and application of the Delta—it can be iterative for a legal professional as she progresses through her career, starting in law school.

Both Alyson Carrel and I currently use the Delta Model to help students in our courses make curricular choices in law school and set career goals intentionally. I do this in a couple of ways with students, first by having them complete a self-assessment of the competencies on a 10-point scale. Students can then overlay their Delta assessment on the Delta map for the position they seek to fill directly out of law school. This creates crucial self-awareness, as students explore both their own skills and the skills required by the role they seek to fill.

Students also complete a second assessment, this time focusing on their competencies in relation to what skills they most want to expand and focus on, regardless of where their current competency levels lie. The point of this assessment: identify any clear gaps in skills preference as compared to the skills a future position requires. This analysis opens what most of us found to be a black box when going into law absent prior experience. By explicitly revealing what the job requires, we can answer a very important question: Is this the kind of work I want to be doing?

This question is equally important for practicing lawyers, who can use the Delta Model in much the same way as students do. By explicitly identifying both (a) your current skills gaps and (b) the skills most important in your current role, you can (c) design a truly intentional and meaningful plan for professional development by focusing on your most critical gaps. Also, you can use the Delta Model to identify roles that may be better suited to your current skills and the ones you most want to cultivate.

A big reason many people leave the law? They land in a role that isn’t a good match for the skills they have and wish to grow. If, by using the Delta Model, we can help people identify and seek the best roles for them, we will keep more people meaningfully engaged in the law and make law better for all.

Finally, I want to emphasize this very personal point: Without realizing it at the time, I was a Delta Model lawyer in my practice. In hindsight, I understand that I most thrived as a lawyer when I was self-aware of my competencies as these related to my work. And I experienced the highest levels of satisfaction in my work when I exercised autonomy over choices to craft both roles and professional development opportunities in line with my own Delta.

As you venture boldly into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I invite you to design your own Delta and create a personalized plan to identify and cultivate your skills growth. Rather than a rude and jolting awakening, you can chart an intentional course to make law better for those you serve. And for yourself.

The Crisis We Needed

I had the honor and privilege of closing out (virtual) CALIcon2020 yesterday (5 June), and this is a quick post to share my slides from the talk.

View the slides here.

BTW, the CALI crew did a phenomenal job producing a highly engaging, energetic, and informative virtual event. Kudos!

I’ll be using this talk as a framework for a series of posts, which hopefully will roll out on at least a semi-regular schedule this summer.

H/T to Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack (@BridgetMaryMc) for the title (and theme). She shared this cogent observation in a webinar hosted earlier this month by the Berkeley Judicial Institute, and it was one of many inspiring quotes I’m bringing into our discussion about how we might redesign legal education as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

We have a lot of work to do. And so much opportunity. Stay tuned.


What? Why?

What is legal education? Why does it matter—to us, to students, to the world that depends upon people educated in our certain way?

One of my Summer projects is to redesign my law school courses. My goal is to make them more accessible, meaningful, and user-friendly for students—my end-users. 

And so, I have been thinking a lot about legal education more broadly. How do my courses fit in with the larger educational design of the multi-year, 21st Century law school experience that we collectively provide to future lawyers?

One fundamental part of the #makelawbetter movement is the drive to #makelawschoolbetter. We might disagree sometimes about what “better” will look like, but we agree that getting to “better” will require us to center the needs and experiences of our end-users: our students.

When educating students for a profession, students ought to be the primary—but not the only—focus of our innovations, creative interventions, and policy changes. They are a diverse, differently-situated group of humans. This takes time and intentional effort.

As we get to know our students better, we need to supplement that knowledge with data about what end-users of the system of legal justice require. What will future clients and the public interest demand from our future-lawyer students? 

The role we play in all of this—the way we define our work and articulate the core mission of legal education to insiders and outsiders alike—matters

So I ask again: What are we doing here? And: why are we doing it?

If we decide we are teaching students how to obtain expert-level knowledge about an inert thing called law, we will judge our current system—and any attempts to make it better—in a certain way. 

But, by contrast: if we decide our mission is more complex….if we decide we are not teaching a thing, but a whole human person: a particular, expert way that some people can know, and think, and speak, and listen, and feel, and do, and be…if we decide our focus is on educating human persons to competently know, value, and do things that are necessary to provide a bundle of human services, only some of which can be labeled “legal”?

If we decide that the way we do these things—not just the ability to do them—matters, too?

Well. In that case, we will evaluate our current system—and our work to reform it—in radically different ways. 

The framing of our work matters.

So I’m asking, one last time. Legal educators: 

What are we doing here? And why are we doing it?

Emergency Remote Teaching? Meet True Distance Learning.

Like many other legal educators, I recently took part in an online survey administered by CALI—the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. The survey was designed to gather data about our recent unplanned-for mass experiment with online legal education. (Because: pandemic!)

In an emailed cover letter that invited us to take the survey, CALI’s Executive Director, John Mayer, bluntly summarized the situation: 

“[W]hat you accomplished was not true distance learning. It was Emergency Remote Teaching.” 

This distinction matters.

We can embrace it without needing to feel defensive about it. As Mayer reminded us: “You didn’t have time to plan, create new materials, train or set up infrastructure.”

To put it in my own words: we did not have time to thoughtfully, collaboratively redesign our courses with online end-users in mind.

I am grateful to Mayer and the good folks at CALI for gathering data at this time when so many others would perhaps like to—but are focused on more pressing ongoing crisis-response initiatives. This data can be an important part of a larger, more deliberative process of reflection, feedback, learning, and planning that we will undertake this Summer.

Over the coming weeks, as we move toward a Fall semester that may possibly be online….or partially online….I will be interested to see what happens when we do have time to plan, create new materials, train, and otherwise design our courses with online end-users in mind.

As part of that process, I hope to check-in with students—the end-users of my courses. They have a point of view that I need to take into account if I am to make meaningful, substantive improvements to my course design and delivery….before giving instruction and feedback online again.

I’m curious, readers. Following our recent, emergency move to online teaching, what did you learn?

How, if at all, do you plan on changing your courses based on newly-acquired information and experience? 

Follow me on Twitter @profcorts, where I will be happy to collect/retweet responses.

As we move forward, let’s share information, swap stories, collect data. It would be optimal to hear from the broadest possible coalition of innovative educators. Let’s embrace this challenge: encourage, challenge, and hold each other to account.


a law students’ bill of rights?

I’m involved in a project to create a virtual learning experience for law students this summer. Spurred by the pandemic and its impact on law students’ summer employment opportunities, a group of forward-thinking people came together to ask, how can we help students right now? What can we do, with what we have, where we are?

I’ll be sharing more on the project shortly.

I mention it because the idea of a law students’ bill of rights came up in planning this learning experience. Our group is focused on giving students meaningful interaction with skills existing on the People and Process sides of the Delta Model. Skills that are largely absent from most law school curricula, and frankly don’t appear in many summer employment experiences, either. And, they’re critical to lawyer formation, professional success, and general thriving.

As we considered what we should be offering students, one of our group referenced a (yet to exist) law students’ bill of rights as a way to articulate what students should be getting out of their early formative learning experiences in law. (I use this phrase intentionally, to be broader than just law school.)

What do law students have a right to, from a legal education? And what comprises a legal education?

These feel like important questions to me. I think we’re going to explore them. With law students. Stay tuned.

And, if this is a topic of interest to you, let me know via Twitter.


Legal Education Unmasked?

Well, fellow legal educators: we did it. We survived a semester that—no, seriously—tried to kill us. We lurched about, frantically learning new rules of physical, social, psychological, even emotional distancing.

We virtually-graduated a class of distracted, traumatized, gritty-resilient students whose futures remain as bright as they are uncertain. If our students were not always engaged? We weren’t either. We all were good faith players in a very confusing improvisational drama. 

All over America, law schools flattened their own curve—and watched intrinsic motivation spike. And dive. And evaporate. And flatline. And resurrect. And…pick your own favorite verb. We saw it all.

Learning for learning’s sake made a bit of a comeback. So did phoning it in. (Literally. And figuratively.)

We stared down existential crisis…and won. Without grades or the curve: who are we?! Why do we exist? Do we still matter? 

Unclear. But we live to fight, doubt, and pit students against each other for another day.

We found a difference between learning…and the assessment of learning. We proved we could still give meaningful feedback without giving a grade. Even so: growth, learning, and a long journey toward professional competence can flourish without a number or letter grade parasitically attached. 

Like world-class athletes, elite musicians, and master craftswomen, we watched wannabe-worldclass lawyers, with wildly-varying levels of resources or motivation, track their growth toward greatness by comparing their own individual performance against…their own previous performance. 

As for assessments? We discovered, again, that exams can be given online. Without sharing physical space. Like good canaries in the bar examiners’ coal mine, we wrestled with a different question: do exams need to be given at all? Do our tests even test what we need them to? Might there be another way to do summative assessment with integrity?

And, my favorite question now dawning: is it possible that we could stage legal education as an arena for practice—not competition?

These questions, our fears and doubts, the interventions we risked…it was all gloriously human. Emotional, aspirational, motivated by noble and ignoble impulses, flawed in execution. Some stuff worked, some stuff didn’t. Some of the stuff that never really works suddenly caught our attention, and we finally cared. A lot.

But…big closing question….:

Did we really need a pandemic to see, and feel, and try, and do, and learn, and fail the way we did? 

Could we lose the global crisis and still be willing to risk doing things in new and better ways? Can we leave this semester behind and still hold ourselves and each other accountable for doing it better next time?

More on that next post….


Iterating on the Delta Model: Practice, Process, People

We intend the Delta Model for Lawyer Competency to be iterative and agile, meaning we will constantly seek to update and improve as we learn more about lawyer competencies and how best to communicate them through the model.

The latest iteration adopts the labels People, Process, and Practice for the three sides of the Delta. I started using these labels in talking about the Delta and found they both accurately capture the content as well as people’s attention.

Delta Model v.4: descriptors of Practice, Process, People
Image courtesy of Alyson Carrel.
Delta Model v.4: competencies of Practice, Process, People
Image courtesy of Alyson Carrel.

As my fellow working group member Alyson Carrel and I work to improve the Delta Model’s utility, we seek to make it as accessible and useful as possible while also integrating all that we know and are discovering about modern lawyer competencies.

Another step we’re taking is to dig deep into IAAL’s Foundations for Practice initiative and its research into lawyer skills and competencies. By overlaying this research with our own qualitative and quantitative original research, along with the research of others in the legal profession and relevant research on 21st-century skills for knowledge workers generally, we seek to identify the most relevant and desirable skills and build out from here. This enables anyone using the model to start with core competencies and then dig deeper based on individual professional development goals.

We’re currently conducting workshops in law schools and with practicing lawyers, and working with career services in law schools to develop tools and methods for integrating the Delta Model into career planning early on in the process.

As we iterate on these early tool prototypes, we’ll be adding resources to Design Your Delta, where we plan to share with anyone interested in using the Delta Model. Consistent with the original goals of the MacCrate Report’s Statement of Skills and Values for lawyers, we view the Delta Model as highly useful for law students (course and career planning), law schools (curricular planning and development), legal services organizations of all types (hiring, training, and retention), and practicing legal professionals (ongoing learning, professional development, upskilling, and generally thriving).

Most days I feel the seemingly utter futility of this effort — into which Alyson and I are pouring a considerable amount of effort and time — to affect any real change for the better in either how we train new lawyers or how practicing lawyers approach their own professional development.

There is so much room for improvement in both areas and the more time I spend in research and understanding, the more I believe both can benefit immensely from starting with a clearly-articulated understanding of what competencies lawyers actually need in today’s world (and beyond) in order to simultaneously do excellent work and thrive as individual humans.

I’m way over microblog limit so shall return soon to finish up these thoughts. Today, I am optimistic. And impatient.


do law schools lag law firms in the integration of technology?

As I started to respond to this tweet on Twitter, it occurred to me that this is a perfect #ALTJD topic. And it’s been a while since we’ve posted here. So, I’ll respond here, and tweet about it. A twofer.

I have more questions than answers in response to the tweet.

A few questions that come to mind:

What exactly should law schools be teaching, with regards to technology?

Should law schools be leveraging technology pedagogically, i.e. in how we teach?

How can law schools and practitioners collaborate to connect the dots between legal education and practice through technology?

And, some thoughts occur as I ponder these queries. One is that law schools generally don’t much teach the practice of law, but rather legal theory and how to “think like a lawyer.” These are very different things. This seems relevant to the technology inquiry and what role it should (can?) play in legal education.

Another thought: I’m not sure we have enough qualified people to teach technology courses (once we decide what this should look like in the legal education setting). I’ve talked to folks at many schools who want to integrate technology and innovation courses into the curricula and can’t because there are no faculty to teach the courses. Even finding qualified adjunct is proving challenging.

(I have many thoughts on why this is. Starting with the fact that many people most qualified to teach technology and innovation courses aren’t necessarily biglaw lawyers who can afford to spend an enormous amount of time teaching a course for essentially no remuneration. When this is the model, you get a lot of old, white male adjuncts who generally are very traditional. This severely limits the pool.)

And because this is a microblog I’ll save further thoughts for another day.


a sandbox for legal education

I recently attended a by-invitation-only conclave convened to explore the future of legal services, from a global perspective. In the room? Legal educators, law company c-suite folks, operations counsel from global technology companies, leaders of legal for the Big 4, members of the current ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Education. An interesting mix of people, certainly.

Attendees were asked to contribute a short paper on one of three topics. Not surprisingly, I chose the topic “design principles for law school curricula in the light of future developments in the market for legal services.”

Here is what I submitted:

The very existence of this second Conference on the Future of Legal Services affirms that the legal profession rests on shifting sands. Accordingly, I will forgo a belabored review of what is changing, and by how much, and why. And I will simply point out that what lawyers do and how we do it looks very different today than it did when my grandfather entered the practice in the 1940s, and when my father entered the practice in the 1960s, and even when I entered the practice in the 1990s. The pace of this change is not going to slow, and most likely will continue to hasten.

If we accept this as true, then what is the import for legal education? For surely, if what lawyers do and how we do it is changing, then how we educate and train new lawyers should change. Many people have been discussing this for quite a while. Consider Thomas D. Morgan’s proposal that the ABA’s law school reform efforts in 2011 “must necessarily begin — at least implicitly — with the question of what kind of people law schools are charged with producing.”[1] This question remains at the heart of any inquiry into legal education.

I recently joined the working group for the Delta Competency Model[2], which seeks to describe the core competencies required to be a successful modern legal practitioner: this is the kind of person law schools are charged to produce. Comprised of three primary competency areas — the law, personal effectiveness, and business and operations — the model offers an agile and dynamic framework for describing the skills and characteristics today and tomorrow’s lawyers — and legal professionals generally — need to thrive.

My proposal is simple: we need a new flavor of legal education with a curriculum designed to teach these competencies. This must happen in the immediate future, and it must be a path to both a legal practice (as a licensed lawyer) as well as positions that do not necessarily require bar passage and licensure, such as legal operations engineer, legal designer, legal process architect, and many more positions that will be needed and do not yet exist.

How do we do this? This also is very simple: the ABA creates a sandbox for designing and testing new flavors of accredited legal education, to include curricular content aligned with modern competencies (e.g. the Delta Model) and delivered using modern pedagogical best practices, including methods based in learning science and integrating advanced technology. All at a cost to law students that does not unduly burden them financially and therefore limit (or dictate) their reasonable employment options post-graduation.

Our obligations to uphold the rule of law and provide access to justice are too great for us to continue with our heads buried in these shifting sands. I’m a 5th-generation lawyer practicing for 20+ years. And I will leave legal education and the profession completely before I stand idly by and bear witness to our continued collective hubris. The time is now.


[1] Thomas D. Morgan, The Changing Face of Legal Education: Its Impact on What It Means to Be a Lawyer, 45 Akron L. Rev. 811, 811 (2011).

[2] The Delta Competency Model: see

as opportunities expand, are law students ready?

And are law schools ready?

I receive queries often from employers who seek legal professionals with training and experience in areas that law schools are not offering (or, not offering in a meaningful and comprehensive way). So students are graduating without this exposure. And often going into law firms that do not offer this exposure.

Queries seeking to fill positions like Legal Process Innovation Architect, for example:

Where does one get exposure to and experience with these competencies? (This is not a rhetorical question.) 

This is happening as I engage in the Delta Lawyer Model of competency working group. We’re seeking to identify core competencies required by a modern legal professional.

The Delta Model identifies the range of competencies that appear in this job description—a range much broader than what is offered by a traditional legal education (which happens to be the only flavor available). While the company that drafted this description has no knowledge of the model, this is not happenstance. The world is moving rapidly in the direction of requiring these competencies. (n.b.: This truth is being affirmed over and over as we test and refine the model across the spectrum of legal employers.)

How rapidly are legal educators moving?