Generally speaking, the most successful lawyers (by any measure: financial, personal satisfaction, recognition) are the specialists. I am qualified to say this, having learned the lessons of the somewhat misguided generalist over many years. (note/disclaimer - In New York, lawyers can't call themselves "specialists", and I am NOT suggesting that anyone hold themselves out to the public as a "specialist". I am of course referring to lawyers who "focus" on particular practice areas. For our purposes I will refer to "specialists" because it reads better than "focusers" or "concentrators") Here are some observations about specialists:
1. They know their stuff. Generalists know their stuff too, up to a point, but on more substantial cases they are soon "out of their element". It's an uncomfortable feeling, and nearly impossible to explain (or justify) to a client.
2. They get paid more.....and bill with confidence, as they should. Without question, they are giving their clients value.
3. They usually find their chosen field interesting and exciting. When I was a confirmed generalist, I proudly found all areas of law interesting, to talk and think about, and to strategize about, but to actually DO.....not so much fun. Haven't we all, as generalists, had the experience of calling someone who "really knew" about a particular area of law? At some point I realized it would be better to be receiving those calls rather than making them.
4. They have systems geared for their specialty......generalists (hopefully) have general, all purpose systems, that work....to a point....but within a specialized field are grossly inefficient by comparison.
5. They know the players in their field, and they recognize the fakers. The specialists are also known (and respected) by the Judges, the Court attorneys, the Court Clerks, and the other lawyers in the case (if there are multiple parties). For the generalist, being in a big case against specialists is like playing an away game in bad weather after a west coast plane trip.
I have two main pieces of advice for general practitioners:
1. Specialize (focus/concentrate) in SOMETHING(s). Even if you are still a generalist, have one or two areas where you act like a specialist. Define yourself by it...... "I'm a ________ lawyer", make systems for it, take extra CLE in it, follow all the cases, and otherwise get really good at it. About five years ago I decided to do this with probate and estate administration. It's been a practice (and life) changer.
2. Despite everything said above, general practice experience actually makes one a more effective specialist. In a strange way, and especially today, general practice can be a specialty unto itself, IF one recognizes that there is great value in evaluating situations, handling matters when appropriate, but also...using your knowledge and experience to MAKE GREAT REFERRALS....which is the essence of specializing in general practice.....more on this in the next post.