Analysis News Business Leadership Careers Law firms Links in radical move to reject over-specialisation By The Lawyer 6 December 2009 00:00 17 December 2015 09:40 Sign in or register to continue reading. It's FREE Sign in Email Password Keep me logged in Forgot your password? Not registered? It's FREE! Register now Register with The Lawyer Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 09:20 About time. But let’s wait and see if it actually happens in reality…headline grabbing is all well and good. Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 10:09 So firms get associates that are easier to move into other departments when things get quieter, and associates get greater flexibility at the cost of expertise…. So who loses out as these associates get more expensive but not all that more experienced in any one area? Clients… And who wins?… the partners, since they don’t have to get rid of so many people, and can move people around when departments get busy. Oh, and the partners don’t hand so much of the client relationship to the associates, so less risk of them becoming chummy with the clients and stealing them. If they are going to create an army of generalists then there really is no reason to stay with the big firms unless you need a massive amount of people on a piece of work (and even then the smaller firms may be able to mobilise an army of contracted lawyers)… clients go to the massive firms FOR specialisation. Reply Link Birmingham law student 7 December 2009 at 10:24 I know loads of people that haven’t been offered a NQ job in the seat that they wanted and have ended up working in an area of law they are not very interested in. I think this idea will give NQs much greater flexibility when they qualify. But there is always the worry that you can be good at lots of different areas of law but an expert at nothing…… Reply Link Magic Circle associate 7 December 2009 at 11:03 This sort of idea has been floating about for ages. I think its great because as an associate you can quickly specialise in one very specific area of law but then if you want to change jobs or are made redundant you can find it difficult. The idea also mirrors what happens in America. Reply Link Britomart 7 December 2009 at 11:08 This has got to be a rotational training scheme rather than creating hundreds of generalists. Having been on the other side of the table as a client, I wouldn’t be happy to pay for some associate to get up to speed on an unfamiliar area of law, but equally I would rather have lawyers who are all-rounders and can take a commercial view. Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 11:14 Taking a commercial view is not inconsistent with being a specialist, nor is being a bit of a generalist consistent with being commercial… If that is what people want then I would try and get associates more secondments… Reply Link City victim 7 December 2009 at 12:14 LOL Are Linklaters admitting that Slaughter & May’s approach is the best one? Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 13:10 jack of all trades, master of none. would clients pay 2 yr pqe rates for someone who’s got 6 months’ relevant experience? Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 14:48 This is not as easy as it sounds. From PQE2 onwards clients will expect a certain competency level in the area that the associate is providing them services in. I was in this situation at a big US law firm in London and was challenging to say the least, to have advanced skills in derivatives but little or no experience in eg eurobond offerings. Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 16:20 The rush to specialise is much too early these days and in order to give a the best service to a client a breadth of experience is invaluable so that you can at least recognise there is an issue even if you do not know the answer and it makes life more interesting for the lawyer Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 16:27 As an experienced in-house lawyer I am often disappointed at the lack of knowledge of a wide range of areas by solicitors in practice. Lawyers need to have a broad experience, but also have a certain expertise. Linklaters are taking teh right approach. Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 16:44 A lawyer with broad general knowledge must be a more rounded lawyer and having general knowledge does not preclude being an expert in a particular field. In my experience, far too many young lawyers have tunnel vision. If it makes a lawyer more adaptable, that must be of benefit both to the lawyer and to the employer, which is a good thing at times like this – everyone benefits, including clients. Reply Link Provincial Partner 7 December 2009 at 16:48 In response to anonymous at 10.09am, I think whether clients gain or lose depends on the clients themselves. I deal mainly with SMEs and OMBs with turnovers of sub £50m and almost universally they *love* what I would describe as ‘relationship managers’, a role which, to do well, brings with it a need for more generalist knowledge. I think in the rush for exponential growth through the nineties and noughties, the fact that legal practice is primarily about relationships has been largely forgotten… Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 16:51 What goes round comes round? The swing of the pendulum…? To be a real specialist and of value to the client it’s essential to understand the general legal environment in which the specialism exists. Reply Link KRUSTY THE KLOWN 7 December 2009 at 16:57 I’m surprised this is news at all since the problem (and the solution) has been around for over a decade. A solicitor should not specialise until he/she has at least 5 years PQE. The profession is plagued by “Well Frogs” who cannot see the context of any advice they give leading to scenarios at all levels of the profession where narrow, misguided and even downright bizarre advice is given. This article (intentionally or otherwise) reminds us of what was lost when the profession decided to let insurers tell them how to run their offices – leading to the death of the family solicitor and the drift towards faceless “call centre” legal services. Bravo to Links – if not for tackling the problem convincingly at least for recognising that the problem exists! Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 17:28 following up on my earlier post (10.09), I do expect assistants to have some broader experience of other departments/practices – isn’t that called a training contract, though? I agree that people specialise very early on in their career and find themselves stuck in an area that they fall out of love with, but isn’t law at a city practice a trade-off? Or is the point that you need to extend the rotations because you don’t see much real law at Links until you’re qualified, and are largly a pagination monkey until then… I’ll be interested to hear how this goes. I guess associates will find it easier to get hours down as they’ll end up doing a lot more “getting-up to speed”, but it will be interesting to see how much is passed on and if there are tensions about write-downs. I don’t get the impression that Links and Slaughters have the same approach vis-a-vis getting the hours on the clock so let’s see how it fits in to their general regime. Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 17:38 Less early specialisation and more generalisation is better for a lawyer’s career development. The solution to whether a client is prepared to pay for a 2 year pqe rates for what is effectively a 6mth pqe lawyer in that field – is to ensure that billing rates rise less precipitously per year, at least for the first 5 years. And along with that, pay for junior solicitors as well. Seems to be as good a time as any to implement this. Will junior lawyers be prepared to accept the quid pro quo of better generalist training in the form of slower rising salaries for the early years? Reply Link Ashley Balls 7 December 2009 at 20:20 Any structural change should be driven by one requirement only: Delivering a quantifiable benefit to clients who, after all at the top of legal services delivery food chain. A fact some partners seem to forget from time to time. If a change is self serving and designed to massage or protect partner income first it should be dropped. It really is nto that hard to work this one out. Reply Link Anonymous 7 December 2009 at 21:18 Welcome to the post-crunch world. I know that this is the practice at international firms working in the Middle East. Reply Link Dan Johnson 8 December 2009 at 08:40 This is long overdue. The horror stories which I (as a generalist Co-Co lawyer) see everyday – still shock me. How about two (2) lawyers (in the same silver circle firm, but) who have never met (because they work in separate buildings) – one drafting Articles of Association and the other drafting the linked Investment Agreement – but neither reading the other’s document. That’s how you get one lawyer spending eighteen (18) months insisting that a clause should be included in an investment agreement, the lawyer on the other side refusing – and each of them oblivious to the fact that the equivalent provision was already in the standard form Articles they were using. … or how about the magic circle firm that send twelve (12) associates to a completion meeting attended by myself and one assistant – and the magic circle firm still failed to collect a GBP £ eight figure cash sum at completion (by accepting a contractual obligation to pay). Surprise, surprise, the American VC that I represented decided (ultimately successfully) to set off the payment obligation against their warranty / indemnity claims (which duly followed – as night follows day). We need more generalist lawyers (with a ‘bolt-on’ specialism) – People who can ultimately graduate to be ‘General Counsel’ if they do not make Partner. Reply Link JakOfAllTrades? 8 December 2009 at 11:23 People specialise far too early; clients want people who understand where things fit into their businesses. Too long overdue, let’s hope they follow this through. Reply Link Anonymous 8 December 2009 at 16:29 The move to specialising happened for several reasons folks and I don’t see those reasons going away. Clients expect their lawyers to not only be experts in the law and have a good commercial understanding of the industry but also to be part of the scene in that industry. No way can someone achieve that if they don’t focus and focus hard. Also, what about those PQE3 yrs and above who are now specialists? Are they all going to be retrained? This is a move for the downturn, when things pick up there will be a real demand for specialists again. Reply Link Anonymous 9 December 2009 at 13:30 Bolt on specialisations are very useful but I agree with comments that a basic “general” understanding of all manner of contracts/legal issues is key to making a good lawyer. I am sick to death of the inability of so many lawyers to understand the most basic of documents or principles outside of their “specialisation”. Its irritating and leads to overduplication and crap work. Reply Link Anonymous 9 December 2009 at 16:32 Those posters who believe this is just another cynical partner move are mistaken, as to a material degree are those who make reference to the demands of the client for the level of specialisation which has become the norm. The proposal is to address a need which has been brewing for 15 years or more but has been masked by the broader based experience of older partners Some 8 or 9 years ago I had over a six moth period, similar conversations with five departmental heads of MC, SC and top 20 practices. The content of them was broadly similar and could be summed up as “why is it that senior associates and junior partners frequently have real difficulty in running transactions if they veer off the beaten track?”. It has for even longer been customary for meetings to be attended “mob handed” even when the involvement of the relevant specialisations are simple and peripheral to the transaction. This in part comes from an total fear of having anything to do with anything however simple and however well explained by the relevant specialist Consider the following • Partners (now in their 50s) trained in the 70’s and early 80’s. • Many posters may find it difficult to contemplate that a top 10 firm at that time might have only 30 or so partners • Training in smaller firms (as the top 10 were by today’s standards) is inevitably broader and more general • The rigid six months rotation system (which has the unfortunate side effect that once a trainee has found his feet and is becoming useful he moves on to another seat) was not quite as prevalent or rigid • Articled Clerks (as they then were) were given much more responsibility and frequently, less supervision then has become the norm in large firms in the last 20 years • many may remember sleepless nights not from “all nighters” but from worry over a matter , unpleasant as it was it had its advantages, for the fear arising from feeling responsible for the matter to the client certainly sharpens your skills even more than any fear of the relevant partner, • Those training them (through having qualified say 10 – 25 years earlier) had experienced an even more generalist training, for example almost all firms had active private client departments in those days It has always been interesting to note the position of Slaughters in the profitability and other league tables as they have always tried not to fall into the specialisation trap, after all look at the breadth of practise of Nigel Boardman who must come in most solicitors list of the top 10 commercial lawyers of the last 10 years or so The only other exception which springs to mind is the quality of the training given at Gouldens their trainees and less than 2 PQE associates seemed far more able to run a transaction than their contemporises at any other top 30 firm. It became clear that the absence of adhering rigidly to the rotation system. however I have no experience of them since their takeover by Jones Day Those posters who express concern as to how Links are going to achieve their objective have a very valid point it is going to be extremely difficult, particularly if the attitude of their associates is similar to the posters who are so clearly antagonistic to the concept. Bing cynical for a moment, perhaps it is only in such a tight job market that it is possible to force though a change of this nature. Notwithstanding the job market it will require a high degree of “buy in” and commitments from Links partners for even a partial achievements f their stated objective. Reply Link Anonymous 11 December 2009 at 14:13 It will help associates to see things in perspective, not only from a specialised angle. This is significant advantage that should not be neglected. Reply Link Suhasini Sakhare 14 December 2009 at 07:48 On the face of it, this seems like an excellant move, in keeping with the needs of the times. It will deal with the problem of clients who don’t want to treat Associates as billing lawyers, and with the problem of Associates, who havn’t been educated up to the level that they could equal billing lawyers. Dig just a centimeter deeper, and you can see the glaring flaws in this scheme of things. First, no matter what clients want today, and no matter what Associates want today, lawyers in developed economies will be points of sale for legal services over the medium term (0-30 years). Points of sale personnel are required to be intuitive, creative problem solvers and possesors of a functioning brain that deals with exceptions. How would generalists grow to develop all these traits? They would be even more hindered than the current lot. Second, the outsourcing ternd was never rolled out to convert staff in developed economies into process drones. They are required to remain critical as people, contribute as people and bring value to the table that no amount of process can. Instead of wasting time copying LPO practices, law firms in developed economies should stop recruiting junior staff, and focus on lateral hires. This will force law students to re-skill, and those who do not leave the profession would end up learning critical IT, Process Design, KM skills the profession desperately needs. This will also force the legal education industry to build law students up to the point, where their work would be of such a good quality, that clients would agree to let Associates bill. What am proposing is tremendously unfair to junior lawyers and current law students, but if it is not done, our profession will be beset with process and training related issues for the next 30 years. 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