Crossroads: Should you specialise (or re-specialise)?

There’s question most young lawyers end up asking themselves at a certain point: what should I specialise in?

Implicit in the question is, of course, the suggestion that you should (or must) specialise in the first place.

Let’s take a look at both questions, and the issues that can arise before you proceed down a particular path.

How Much Experience Do you Have?

“Back in the day” (the use of that phrase only confirms that I’m getting old) young aspiring lawyers were put through Articles of Clerkship.  That has, of course, gone by the wayside in many place and, in Australia at least, a different style of training has arisen.

What has also started to happen more and more though is that young lawyers are not being exposed to a wider variety of legal areas before they get stuck in a specialist field.

And that’s a big problem.

I’ve been working predominately in litigation for over 10 years now.  However, both before and during that time I have been involved in residential conveyancing, preparing wills and powers of attorney, liquor and gaming related matters, leasing, commercial business transactions, taxation advice and a variety of other bits and pieces.

That additional exposure to other areas of law has provided me a framework for my litigation career.  I understand how deals are done, how broader commercial and personal issues come into play, and I understand the real world imperatives of our clients.

Without that additional experience I would be a far less effective litigator.

So before looking to specialise I ask you this: how well rounded is your legal experience?  Even if you are dedicated to a particular team, there is no real reason you cannot ask to be involved in some of those broader matters.  It will ultimately be a huge benefit to your career, irrespective of your practice field, to have a working knowledge of the full ambit of services your firm provides.

You also never know – perhaps you’re not actually working in your preferred area – perhaps that’s just the only thing you know.

What Does your Firm Do?

This can be a big issue for young lawyers in a tough job market looking to specialise.  If your firm doesn’t do the kind of work that you think you’re interested in, how can you go about getting exposure and expertise in that area?

Good question – it’s hard.

There’s going to be a certain amount of personal commitment required here, because you will have trouble convincing your firm to start taking on clients in a brand new field if there is no senior lawyer with expertise in the area.  The reality is that it’s extremely risky for the owners to do that.

So what can you do?

First – try and get as much expertise as you can through personal reading and attendance at seminars.  That should at least let you know if your interest survives a bit more exposure to the area.

Next – see what you can do about getting involved in the area or industry that you are interested in – perhaps join an association, attend events, and hob-nob with people who are already doing what you want to be.

Then it’s time to see if there is a case for the firm to take on that.  Hopefully if you’ve put a bit of effort in, you might have some contacts.  Can you find out if the area is profitable?  Are there clients out there who need to be served?  Would you be able to get them, or would you need to get a senior lawyer on board in the same area to work with?

Finally – try and make the case for your firm to do the work.  It needs to be low risk and profitable.  That might involve hiring somebody interested in building up the area who can bring a bit of a client base with them, or perhaps it involves you doing it yourself.  What’s possible is really going to depend on the area.

If that doesn’t work then you need to make a decision – find another job in your preferred area, or re-find a bit more joy in your existing station.

Specialise – but don’t pigeon hole

As I mentioned up front, the decision to specialise is often thrust upon us a bit earlier these days, however I encourage you not to become a one-trick pony.

One-trick ponies say stupid things to clients when they ask about areas outside your experience.  I’d be a wealthy man if I have $1 for every transactional lawyer who has said moronic things to their clients about potential litigation.  Likewise, they’d all be quite well off if they had the same for every litigator who mis-stated how to sell a business. Not through bad intentions, but through sheer ignorance combined with the inability to say “I don’t know”.

That said, there is simply too much law, and it’s too complicated, for any person to know everything.  So in reality specialisation at some point is probably going to be necessary, unless you are content to have a very general practice (which is fine) but no particular expertise in any field.  Reality says that might not be possible in a larger firm, but could be in a smaller one.

So the final question becomes – what should you specialise in?  Bearing in mind how long you’re likely to be in practice, I strongly suggest you find your sweet spot – what do you get energy from and enjoy the most?  Specialise once you have found your sweet spot – but don’t rush in.  There’s a lot to learn, and an abundance of areas to learn about – a well rounded lawyer in any field will offer value to their clients.

Happy lawyering!