As attorneys develop their careers, a key consideration is whether and to what extent to specialize their practice. Law school and bar exam preparation generally provide attorneys with a foundational understanding of many different practice areas, but expertise in none. Early in their careers, attorneys are typically encouraged to choose some direction or a particular area of the law to specialize in. This choice can be influenced by many factors, including areas of interest, demand in the legal market at the time or an employer’s needs. As young attorneys’ careers progress, they often face the question of whether to continue, change or focus their area of practice.
Specialization can take many forms. It might mean focusing your practice on a specific substantive area of the law, or it might mean focusing on an industry, a type of client, or a geographic area. Of course, specialization is also not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is a matter of degree. For example, an attorney interested in working with emerging technology companies might develop broad specializations, such as corporate governance and intellectual property, or limit herself to a more niche specialization, such as cybersecurity. When deciding whether or how to specialize, young attorneys should consider the potential benefits and drawbacks, which we discuss below.
The Specialized Legal Practice
Specialization can help young attorneys market their practice and establish a reputation as an expert in a specific area of law. It may be easier, less competitive and less time-consuming to become an expert in a more niche legal area or market, or to create relationships in a specific industry. Attorneys who are especially well-versed in a specialized legal practice may find it easier to pitch and retain clients. Specialized attorneys are often more proficient in their particular area, so they spend less time researching the law and may be able to approach new legal issues with a broader understanding of the context, and therefore provide workable, proven and creative solutions.
For attorneys genuinely interested in niche areas of the law, specialization can make their practice more interesting and personally fulfilling. Specialization can bring satisfaction in developing in-depth knowledge of one area of the law, as well as confidence that their work product reflects that depth of knowledge and a high level of proficiency.
Financial gain is another reason why some attorneys choose to specialize, particularly when practicing as outside counsel. Specialized attorneys can earn higher salaries than their colleagues in general practice. Though it is not always the case, specialized attorneys can be more valuable to clients because of their high level of expertise, particularly if it is in a less common practice area. Such a level of expertise can also allow more freedom to be selective about new cases and clients, which can give specialized attorneys a degree of control over their career development that less specialized attorneys may not get. Further, law firms that employ specialized attorneys can often market their expertise and charge a higher rate.
Conversely, attorneys who choose to specialize may feel pigeonholed. While a specialized practice may be marketable, it is most successfully marketed within its specialty, meaning that potential clients may only hire a specialized attorney for work within their niche practice. Specialized attorneys also risk being burnt out and may lose interest in their practice area over time. They may then find it difficult to cultivate new work outside of their area of expertise. Attorneys with a strong reputation in a niche area may have difficulty transitioning to a new practice area and may struggle if demand for their practice decreases or they want to make a change. Likewise, attorneys who charge a higher rate due to their specialty may have difficulty sustaining that rate if they want to branch out to other areas of practice. Specialization can also narrow an attorney’s focus, limiting their ability to see solutions outside their narrow area of expertise. As they say, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The Generalized Legal Practice
For young attorneys who are considering in-house careers or have general counsel aspirations, a broader area of expertise is typically more marketable. Though some large companies have substantial in-house legal departments with attorneys filling specialized roles, most companies employ only a few lawyers who are responsible for all of the company’s legal issues, spanning a wide range of practice areas. A more general or varied legal practice is more likely to provide the kind of breadth of legal knowledge that will prepare a younger attorney to provide day-to-day legal advice to an entire organization.
For attorneys at firms, a generalized practice may help improve the attorney’s ability to identify precise legal issues in a variety of practice areas and identify those specialized attorneys within the firm who can best help solve those issues, which can benefit overall client relationships with the firm. A more generalized, versatile practice may also help young attorneys be more creative in problem-solving because they can draw from experience in different practice areas. For lawyers in smaller legal markets, a specialized practice may be too narrow. A generalized practice might be the more marketable option.
Some attorneys also prefer a generalized practice because specialization can limit their exposure to legal issues and clients. While specialization can bring comfort and stability, that stability can turn out to be an illusion if demand for a specialized practice decreases, becomes commoditized, or is otherwise disrupted. Attorneys with more generalized practices have more flexibility to shift toward in-demand work.
Consider Your Options
Younger attorneys, in particular, should regularly think about their interests, position and goals to help navigate their career toward their preferred balance on the spectrum of specialization. Some questions for younger attorneys to consider include:
- What areas and aspects of legal practice do you genuinely enjoy and can you see yourself staying engaged in them long-term?
- What options are available to you to explore different practice areas and roles? Even if you think you know what practice you want to specialize in, seek out work with or learn about the practices of other attorneys in your firm and your network. If your employer offers rotations among different practice groups or secondments with clients’ in-house departments, consider participating in those programs. You may learn that the day-to-day practice in your area of interest is not what you thought it was or that there is some other aspect of legal practice that interests you more long-term. Practicing patience when choosing specializations reduces the chance that you will become pigeonholed in a practice area you dislike.
- Are you developing significant experience in a field you are not fully invested in because of early experience, firm pressure or another reason? Express your interest in other practices and look for ways you can shift into different areas. Moving away from a niche practice can become more difficult later in your career.
- What is the market for your preferred practice? Is there a need in your area for attorneys with your interests? If not, consider moving locations or adjusting your specific focus to someplace or something more in demand. Be careful when considering specializations that are cyclical or unlikely to exist throughout the span of your legal careers.
- What are your long-term goals? Is your area and breadth of practice likely to strengthen your ability to achieve those goals?
As with many career choices, there are definite advantages to both specialized and general legal practices along with corresponding potential drawbacks. Decisions about whether and how to specialize your practice are ultimately very personal, and the relative weight of the benefits and disadvantages to specialization will depend on the individual attorney’s core interests and long-term goals.
The views expressed here are personal to the authors and do not represent the opinions of their employers.
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