Should Young Lawyers Specialize?

"One word . . . plastics." -The Graduate

“One word . . . plastics.”
-The Graduate

I never for a moment thought about pursuing a career as a transactional attorney. I entered law school for the wrong reasons. I knew I could think, write and argue reasonably well. I was a liberal arts major (Philosophy and Literature-Writing) and did not really appreciate how such skills could translate into success in the business world. And I did not think I would enjoy a career as an educator.

So, I did exactly what I would urge no one do today: I took the LSAT, got into law school, and went to law school, without having any particular passion about the law.

If anyone had asked back then–and I don’t think anyone did–what I planned to do with that law degree, what area I’d practice in, what I wanted to do everyday, if and how I would make a difference, I wouldn’t have had a clue. When I was interviewing and starting my career, there were vastly more jobs in litigation, so I became a litigator. I started out doing insurance defense, but not the interesting kind, and immediately grew bored with fender-benders (“Was the light red or green?”) and slip-and-fall lawsuits (“Was the banana you slipped on yellow or green?”). Fortunately, I got hired right away at a boutique firm that did more interesting work (at least from my perspective). I quickly became a “specialist” in automotive product liability litigation, specifically suits relating to the performance of automobile air bags, which was an emerging technology at that time.

I remained a “specialist” in this area, with a smattering of other kinds of cases, for about the first 10 years of my career. However, I eventually figured out that, deep down, I’m not really a gear-head, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the lawyers who really excel in automotive product liability litigation, and who most enjoy what they do, are those who are interested in cars. Well, duh!?!

I eventually migrated to employment law for a number of reasons. First, and most practically, it was the only area that I was able to get any early traction in terms of developing my own clients. Equally important, however, being the opposite of a gear-head, I found I enjoyed disputes that arose out of (often flawed) interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Also, I had long felt that employment law was fertile ground for building a book of business, since every, EVERY employer, particularly in California, needs an employment lawyer. If they haven’t needed one yet–they will!

I had not intended this post to be a memoir. I recognize that my career path probably makes dry reading. But I wanted to tackle a topic that I think is important for law students, recent graduates and those still in the early years of their career: should you attempt to specialize? Like most people, I’m narcissistic and can only approach a personal question by starting from my own experience.

In any event, I posed this question to someone who has a fair amount of expertise in helping lawyers make the most of their legal careers. Gideon Grunfeld, the President of Rainmaking For Lawyers, was gracious enough to provide this valuable insight:

“Too many lawyers get shortsighted advice about whether they should specialize and what that means. There are substantive areas, such as tax, ERISA, and patents, where specialization is almost a necessity. But there are many areas, such as business litigation, where specialization can be counterproductive. Rather than focusing on the substantive nature of the law and, for example, specializing in trade-secret litigation, it’s better to encourage young lawyers to identify the clients they most want to serve. Thus, for example, if someone has a passion for high-tech start-ups, they can focus on cultivating relationships in that world and position themselves to solve the full panoply of legal issues that arise for that market or audience. For most young lawyers this is a more robust not to say more fun way to practice law and build a client base.”

I tend to agree with Gideon’s advice. I like the notion of letting one’s specialty develop organically. In my case, it developed because someone close to me gave my business development efforts a big jumpstart by referring employment cases my way. I found I liked it and wanted to pursue it further. This is pretty much the opposite approach from deciding I wanted to practice entertainment law because I like to go to the movies (which I do).

What I would really caution against is remaining in a practice that never brings you any thrills. Even though I’m not a gear-head, there were parts of my products liability practice that I found compelling. I recognize that this is not the market for young lawyers to quit a job on a whim. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with developing a mid or long-term career plan to move away from an area that brings you no joy, with the hope of finding something more fulfilling. If I was still fighting cases about people who tripped on a public sidewalk, I’d have to open a vein. But that’s just me.

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6 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Great post. This is definitely an issue that law schools don’t really teach or make students aware of. Furthermore, this profession truly depends a lot on the “mentor-mentee” relationship. So, unless you are lucky enough to find a seasoned lawyer who takes an interest in you, then it really does become extremely difficult to be placed in a position to “figure out” what you want. And here comes a point not raised in your post…

    Lawyers depend on the “right time, right person, **RIGHT NEED**” triumvirate in order to really be enabled to pursue any type of passion (whether it be litigation v. corporate; high-tech starts ups v. fashion trademark). For example, lets say you have a passion for municipal debt. Its VERY difficult to find this type of work on your own or in any place that is not a big law firm. In addition, if your like me – someone who is competent, hardworking and interested – it is disheartening when no one will give you the opportunity simply because of what law school you went to. As Viva Chen over at Thecareerist puts it, lawfirms say “that they want to hire law grads with practical skills. They don’t mean that either, because a middling Harvard Law School grad will trump an honors grad from Ohio State with amazing practical skills any day.”

    So my point is basically that your post provides great insight and I appreciate the candor. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like the legal profession really gives us a choice except to fulfill the needs of the firm at that time. And even the needs of the firm will be limited in many instances by *where* you can work at. Its not like in the prior generation where if there was a will, there was a way! Disheartening to say the least… but, we keep on trying! More advice and posts on this topic would be greatly appreciated.

    • Thanks for your comment and I completely agree. The good news is that, although Harvard has marquee name recognition, no law school anywhere has cornered the market on “teaching” practical skills, so it’s what you do outside law school that makes the biggest difference in terms of practical skills. The right place/right time issue plagues us all. It doesn’t end once you’ve found a practice you like, either, since the right time, right person, right need triumvirate is a major factor in getting hired by a client.

  2. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m a commercial litigation lawyer but have some smatterings of experience in various commercial fields. What I have found is that young lawyers who specialise early on have difficulty offering any broader perspective to clients and tend to lack a bit of commercial savvy (or litigation savvy, if they took the opposite path to me). Litigation lawyers benefit greatly from having some real world transactional experience, so they understand more about how the contract dispute they ended up with came to light.

    Similarly I think commercial lawyers could benefit from some litigation experience, as it can offer them a sharper perspective on risk management in their own area.

    So even if young lawyers do choose to specialise, I think it’s good (given the opportunity) to step outside that comfort zone now and then, to ensure you know what’s going on around you.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  3. As an attorney who has specialized in residential construction defect cases before anyone recognized widespread residential defect cases, I can agree with the previous comment that the attorney is ultimately limited due to his overwhelming knowledge of one field. However, this is not a fatal problem to his career as the law profession needs residential construction defect attorneys and, although it sounds like “bricks and sticks”, there is so much more than meets the eye upon first impression. Like many areas of the law, an inexperienced litigator in this area will get his hat handed to him despite his victory in court, because a competing declaratory action finds there is no coverage for that bankrupted builder. This type of result is difficult to avoid without the knowledge that is gained through years of practice. Just my thoughts to share.

  4. Great post. It seems these days you can change specialisations, industries and careers without raising eyebrows. At the age of 25, my career path has deviated drastically from the original course. I think young Lawyers are better off being exposed to a broad range of matters within a particular subject area. For example, I have no interest in criminal law and tend to gravitate towards commercial law. That way, their experience is more well rounded and when it comes time to look for a new role, they have more options.

  5. Hey Alex – this is a great post. I love the honesty – plus you share some solid advice. I like Gideon’s point too about identifying the type of clients you want to serve – I hadn’t heard that approach before. Glad I found your site via LinkedIn today. We’re in the same town too! Finding career happiness is the full focus of what I cover on my site. This post fits in well with what we do over there.

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