In-house lawyer dan kayne was discussing potential recruits for his team at network rail when he came up with an idea that became the o shaped lawyer. his vision was for an initiative to give lawyers more rounded skills via new forms of professional development.

The human element and the ability to connect is so important in our profession, and yet law firms have traditionally struggled with this, says mr kayne, general counsel for regions at network rail, which manages the uks rail infrastructure. it is all too common for law firm partners to become partners and therefore role models because of their technical expertise and not their leadership qualities.

The need for this to change is driven partly by the digital transformation under way in the legal sector. while artificial intelligence and machine learning are enabling automation of many legal processes, and the jobs that went with them, there is also demand for the human capabilities that then add value to legal services.

Michael davison, hogan lovells deputy chief executive, argues that lawyers will need to have the ability to question the data. people will need to think, does this answer from the data look right? he says. that depends in turn on judgment and making the call.

In addition, says patricia manca, partner at pwc tax & legal services spain, the growth of legal tech means lawyers need broader capabilities. no one coming out of law school now can avoid the need for digital skills, she says. but they also need other skills such as design thinking, legal management, innovation and empathy.

Todays shifting geoeconomics demand broader legal skills, says james anderson, partner at skadden, arps, slate, meagher & flom. since the end of the cold war armed conflict has often been replaced with targeted use of economic tools: most of them have legal dimensions, like trade and investment policy, economic and financial sanctions, financial and monetary policy, energy and commodities, and cyber.

As in many other industries, the pandemic has required lawyers to show greater flexibility and the ability to collaborate online while blurring the boundaries between work and life. mr anderson says this means lawyers, particularly those with management responsibility, must take on the role of coach and address obstacles that might prevent their colleagues achieving their potential.

We have to tune in to a broader range of issues that could affect our team of lawyers whether thats their location, their family situation, or their physical and mental health and eliminate any issues where we can, as soon as we can, he says.

One of the most powerful potential forces for change in the legal profession is the evolving role of the general counsel. as in-house lawyers move beyond contracting and compliance to become strategic business advisers, they want their external lawyers to have a different set of skills.

In a recent report, the o shaped lawyer project identified three categories of non-legal skills that general counsel look for in the lawyers they work with: adaptability, willingness to build relationships and ability to create value through legal initiatives.

The new demands of in-house teams call for private practice lawyers to think in new ways, says ms manca. if you want to be a value-added law firm for your clients, you need to understand complex problems and find flexible solutions, she says.

Meanwhile, as more companies emphasise sustainability, general counsel want this to be reflected in their suppliers, whether of raw materials or legal services. like every other function in their organisations, general counsel are saying they need their supply chains to do the same, says mr kayne.

If the legal sector has recognised the need to equip people with new skills and ways of thinking, the question now is how to achieve that.

It could start with academia. the o shaped lawyer worked with the university of law, one of the largest law schools in the uk, to develop a programme focused on communications and building relationships delivered via ulaws online learning platform

We work closely with the main law schools that feed our intake, says clare francis, commercial law partner at pinsent masons. and the more they can do to make [their courses] less academic in focus and more ready for real life practice, the better.

Law firms also need to work internally on developing the right skills. to promote collaboration, for example, pinsent masons assigns an innovation manager to each practice group to ensure teams from different parts of the firm are working together.

Another approach is to use behavioural science or nudge theory, to influence peoples behaviour. hogan lovells solicits detailed client feedback on its services so that it can present its lawyers with hard evidence of why working collaboratively is valued.

As lawyers, we went into the law because we like the structure of the argument and the process, and we instinctively push back against change, says mr davison. so its about nudging people to do things differently, think in a broader way and collaborate more effectively.