Becoming an Expert… Waste of Time?

Become an ExpertWith few exceptions, lawyers want to be experts (so much they are terrified of being seen as incompetent).  For that reason, becoming an expert is pretty high on the priority list, whether it be at property law, litigation, taxation, personal injuries, or whatever.  But that goal is only half the picture in a legal marketing sense.  Today we’re going to look at why.

Becoming an Expert is a Nice, but Useless, Goal

Of course lawyers want to be experts in their fields.  I understand.  It makes us feel more confident, useful, and generally helps with our charge out rates and pay scale.

However, for most rainmaking and legal marketing intents, expertise is dramatically over-rated.

In fact, you can be the most expert person out of all the experts in expert land, and still it will do you no good.

Why?

Because becoming an expert of itself is not useful, unless you have also managed to obtain the perception of expertise.

Perception of Expertise – the Other Half of Becoming an Expert

If nobody thinks you are an expert, then what good is becoming an expert in the first place?  Answer: none, nada, zip, nothing.

However the perception of expertise will open many doors for you, that mere expertise by itself will not.  This might be media attention, speaking opportunities, article prospects, and client referrals.

I should stress at this point that aiming for perception without any substance behind it is a bad idea for lawyers.  Making claims beyond your actual experience or abilities is both unethical and risky.  I know people have done it in the past, and I don’t advocate it one bit.

BUT, don’t underestimate your existing expertise either.  It’s easy to compare yourself to lawyers with 30 years experience and believe that you are not an expert in anything.  However, with 4-5 years of study, perhaps 1-2 more of training and even a couple of years of practice under your belt, you have accumulated a vast amount of useful information that can be presented to demonstrate your expertise.

Tim Ferris in The Four Hour Work Week suggests that if you read the 3 most well regarded books on any given topic you will have more knowledge and expertise about it than most other people.  I heartily agree.

Think about how much you have read in your field?  I’ll bet it is a tonne.  The fact is that you have expertise.  So now we’ve seen the point, the question becomes how to capitalise on it.

How to Be Perceived as an Expert

Here are a few pointers for you to start developing perception of expertise:

  • Public Speaking – any time you get with a platform at your disposal should absolutely be taken.  The more talks you have the better.  Your preparation time will allow you to ensure you don’t look stupid, and in doing so you will both practically build your actual knowledge, as well as building perception both for your audience and anybody who reads your CV
  • Article Writing – there’s every chance you’ll be able to write articles.  Obviously they need to have your name on them to assist with perception of expertise.  Assuming they can, again you can build both actual expertise and perception in one swoop with a good article on any given topic.
  • Remember that perception of expertise is relative – it’s not whether you know everything in an area, it’s really just whether you know slightly more than the person on the other end of the conversation.
  • Internally with your firm and your colleagues, make sure people know who you are and what you do.  Have conversations, talk about matters (only among lawyers in your firm please – everyone else finds it boring as anything and it would probably breach your ethical obligations anyway).  Just look for opportunities to talk about what you do and why you enjoy it.

Becoming an expert is a great goal to have, but combining it with being perceived as an expert will be even more beneficial for your career.

Happy Lawyering!

  • Really interesting post thank you. In my line of work ( helping people look, sound and feel confident when speaking in public) I tackle the challenge that ‘expert professionals’ often suffer from – they don’t always know how to express it. When an expert can speak confidently and compellingly about their area of expertise, they grow in Authority status or ‘Go-TO’ status as I call it. Being seen and known for being an expert saves you time ( imagine being able to speak to a whole room of potential clientss rtaher than one to one?) attracts clients to you (people can find you, recommend you easily) and grows your reputation ( very important for professionals). Here is a blog I wrote recently – not specifically for lawyers but your readers might find it helpful http://www.catherinesandland.com/three-good-reasons-why-you-should-be-great-at-presenting/

    Thanks again and I hope it is ok if I share it ?

    • Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and observations – always happy for you to share relevant links that will help out the Tips for Lawyers community.

      Kind Regards,
      Chris

  • A nice thought, but completely wrongly focused (on marketing). If you aren’t an expert in a field, then you will lose litigation and negotiations to lawyers that are experts. I have experienced many instances of IP litigation matter with a Big4 law firm where they completely muck it up. This is generally because they have one team of IP experts and another team of dispute resolution experts and, for whatever reason, the two never meet. Accordingly, clients are failed by lawyers because they don’t have expertise, irrespective of whether the lawyers could drag in the clients in the first place.

    Of course, the modern lawyer seems to be more interested in marketing than, say, the practice of law. The perception of expertise is one thing, but I have had enough matters where the Courts time was wasted by a supposed expert to tell me that if you wish to practice (particularly in the Federal Court before Dowsett & Co) then you need expertise or risk being torn to shreds.

    • Hey there ACS and thanks for your considered comment here. I agree – the post was deliberately focused on marketing, and you are correct that a certain level of expertise is not only desirable, but mandatory, if you’re going to practice.

      However I guess the point of my article was – where do you draw the line? Pursuit of expertise simply for the sake of expertise is (as opposed to necessary development which impacts upon clients), to my mind, still a waste of time as it offers no benefit to you or your client. On the flip side, and to take up your point, I completely agree that people who don’t have sufficient expertise to do a job for a client should absolutely not be doing it. Often this is about pride, or “my clients” or other ego related issues that lawyers should be better at distancing themselves from.

      The reason that article was focused on marketing is because many lawyers think that if they become “expert” enough then work will come flooding in. I think that other than at the extreme ends of the expertise spectrum that view is probably wrong. As you say it’s a different issue though to whether you are sufficiently expert to properly serve your clients.

      Thanks again – a great observation,
      Chris

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