14 October 2002
Company specialists may have been expected to deal with property work allied to the transactions upon which they worked, while a litigator would have drafted a host of commercial agreements spawned by the settlement of a complex High Court action. 'All rounders' may still exist in some of the smaller firms, particularly outside London, yet the existence of generalists has all but disappeared from firms operating in central London and other commercial centres.
The watchword of the 1980s, which became the mantra of the 1990s, was that in order to succeed, a lawyer needed to specialise. The sooner they found a niche, the brighter their career prospects would look.
But there is a downside to specialisation: the reduction in the ability of a lawyer to take an all-round view of a transaction. So is this something that the profession is in danger of overlooking?
Take a typical, albeit hypothetical, client with specialist needs: Admor Entertainment, a media company looking to establish itself as a producer of short films. The hard work of Admor's young directors pays off when their script for a feature film receives the green light from global multimedia conglomerate Imm-Ents. The deal is particularly attractive as various of Imm-Ents' divisions would publish a book based on the film, develop and release a computer game tie-in, make a television series using characters and settings from the film and release a soundtrack album, employing bands signed to record labels under Imm-Ents' control.
Following a review of the deal terms, an initial meeting is arranged at the offices of leading City law firm Weah Large. Admor's lawyer attends the meeting with one of the Admor directors. When they are shown into the boardroom at Weah Large, they are surprised to be met by a total of no fewer than nine people.
When the client starts to talk about the film production, Weah Large's film partner talks through the deal and one of Weah Large's music partners the soundtrack. The attendees then review the computer game proposal and address the fact that the development work will be subcontracted out to a specialist studio. Discussion of the novelisation inevitably involves a specialist from Weah Large's intellectual property department. When everyone around the table has had their say, another three people join the meeting - Weah Large's television partner, her assistant and a trainee. They proceed to outline the legal arrangements for the creation of the television series.
After a productive meeting, the three leave with a thick pile of business cards, debating whether to file them by specialism, year of admission or in alphabetical order.
But there is a serious point here: there comes a point when the extent to which areas of specialist activity are divided and then subdivided defeats the point of the principle; and the ability of a lawyer to take the all-round view, and advise their client in the context of its commercio-legal affairs, comes under serious threat.
Perhaps the market has come full circle. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the strategies and the benefits to the client that they purport to provide. The cost of employing a multi-lawyer team on small, or even medium-sized, transactions is one that many clients are no longer prepared to pay for. As clients become more sophisticated, they are looking more at markets and less at individual disciplines. The edges between the firm's corporate and media practices have become blurred. The lawyers operating in each of the primary areas of the firm's activity need a good understanding of the other.
While the day of the specialist has long been with us, virtually any contemporary entertainment project is capable of spawning productions across a variety of media, each requiring the analysis of various rights issues.
Knowledge of just one or two areas is not enough to equip a contemporary media lawyer to fully advise their clients. Media clients expect and need more from their advisers, particularly at a time when pressure on costs has never been so intense.
As with so many areas of practice, lawyers with a broad-based knowledge across a range of subjects will often make a more valuable commercial contribution to a client's project than the specialist operating within the narrow boundaries of one designated niche or another.
While it may be true that a generalist media lawyer may not have as much detailed knowledge of minutiae as the dedicated media specialist, the benefit of a multidisciplinary approach is that the legal team is unlikely to exceed the number of extras drafted in for a crowd scene.