Saturday, November 16, 2013

Specialize in Something(s)

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 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.


  1. At what stage in your career does specializing become a good idea?

    I'm currently an articling student. I doubt it would be beneficial to me to arbitraily pick and specialize in a single area of law within the next few years.

    At what point, does that change?

  2. Replies
    1. Some people seem to know it right away. For most though, it comes after working at a number of areas, eliminating some that you KNOW you don't like, and then gravitating towards an area that you can see yourself doing at a high level. Like many things, it's a process, and does not always proceed in a straight line. It evolves, but at some point the way becomes clearer and as you focus the path becomes clearer and things accelerate.

  3. I agree. The best scenario I think is to do general practice for a few years and then specialize. Thats my ideal scenario. Its what I did. I makes you a well rounded lawyer and it helps appreciate more whatever is that you do when you specialize.

  4. Ivan - I wholeheartedly agree. When you have done general practice you become aware of so many more issues AND you get to know so many attorneys and other professionals. When you later specialize you are much more "evolved" and effective than someone who jumps right into a specialty.

  5. If you are wanting to become a general practice attorney, what is it that you have to do and what do you have to go through? I am wanting to actually start going myself, but I am not sure where I should start. I am really just hoping that I can get through things and start a new career.
    Jak Manson |

  6. Yeah, I also think that it is important to first get into core law practices to clear each and everything. Only after this practice, one should get into specialization.
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  7. Thanks for the tips. I didn't think about it this way. Would you recommend young lawyers to start out in general practice, or to specialize immediately? As you said, I think starting in general practice is a great way to build contacts and understand what you're interested in.

    Jenn |

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  9. I think that you bring up a great point- lawyers really do need to be specialized. When you need a divorce lawyer, you want to get a lawyer who knows each and every law that is pertinent to your case so you can be prepared. And it is very true- the more specialized you are, the higher you can charge for your specialized services!

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