Specialisation – benefit or burden?

…Almost from the moment a lawyer hatches from the chrysalis of their training contract they will specialise. A butterfly is born, but one that feeds on a very narrow diet.

I have often wondered if this is a burden or a benefit…I suppose on the one hand it means that the “Big Law” law firms can claim to be specialist depth in a variety of subject disciplines, presumably charge premium fees for their expertise and rock-up to meetings with a small tribe of eager fee earners. And, if I am generous, the advantage to the client is that they may be able to buy deep insight that potentially affords competitive advantage…

But there are downsides too…labelled and routed (as well as rooted) lawyers are pushed towards knowing more and more about an area that will have less and less relevance to an ever increasing number of potential contacts and clients.

This isn’t “strategic”; it is instead a gamble on matching a market with a career…More concerning still is that I do not believe for a moment this is what the vast majority of corporate clients actually want.

Most clients care less that their lawyer is steeped in specialty, dripping with technical insight; but they do care about good judgement and wisdom and that their lawyer has the character and personality to encourage them to invest their faith and trust in the outcomes of their lawyer’s work. If this sounds a bit “airy-fairy”, let me put it this way: Clients want lawyers who make good decisions based on the right amount of information. A decision with no facts is a guess. A decision with all facts will be too late. Judgement is deciding how many facts are needed. Wisdom is getting it right.

I am not suggesting that when some esoteric tax point is in issue or when a “bet the company” takeover is being planned that the true rocket scientists of the profession are not needed or value for money – whatever they cost. I am certain however that for maybe 75% of the legal work that is done on behalf of corporate clients, specialism is more hindrance than help. It results in tactical advice not strategic advice; it creates duplication and slows things down. It is designed to improve time sheets, not to get to a desired outcome in a commercial and timely way.

Some of the best lawyers I know would now actually proclaim they know precious little law. Working with, for example, top General Counsel, one can see how they have moved through specialism to a more important place. They understand risk, understand (more importantly) their business’s tolerance to risk; they apply their analytical skills, relationship development skills, their creative problem solving skills, their influencing skills and their communication skills…In doing so they are seen as a contributor, a player, a voice at the table that should be heard.

All lawyers should aspire for their guidance to be perceived in this way and all lawyers should see that the majority of their corporate clients want an experience like this too. This isn’t rocket science, but it is very clever.

Paul Gilbert is a director of LBC Wise Counsel SA and Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel the UK based specialist management and skills training consultancy for lawyers.www.lbcwisecounsel.com