Specialization, can we see the forest for the trees?

Posted By on March 29, 2009

If you have read very many of my postings you probably notice that my emphasis is on labor, employment and workers compensation with my specialization being in Labor and Employment Law.  However, it has always been important to me to try to keep some diversity in my practice.  In this era of specialization I believe that the general practice of law is falling by the wayside and I do not necessarily agree with its demise.  I think this is going to be a major problem in the future because there are no bright lines which distinguish one practice area from another.  The work which you do in one area often has ramifications and its “effect spills over” into other areas.  The purpose of this writing is to emphasize the importance of understanding the “rippling effect” which an attorney’s efforts may have when we act in one niche area of the law.  While my practice is centered in labor, employment and workers compensation I have also always kept cases in personal injury, business law and usually some other  matter in with my daily work.

It requires that you stay current in areas additional to your area of specialization but the rewards which you get from doing these other cases  is well worth the additional work.  Please don’t get me wrong,  it is important that we have specialists and chances are if I had started  my practice with a large firm where my only focus and training was limited to one small area I would probably not think the way that I do.  But that was not the case when I first started practice about 19 years ago and I worked in many diverse areas and took the opportunity to educate myself in that area even if I only did one case there.  Those days are past as there are not enough hours in the day to just take  cases because they are interesting since I have more case files to service than just the few that I had when I first started practice.

With just a few exceptions, most notably Admiralty Law, the  license which an attorney earns is a general license to practice.  The only limits on this license are what the attorney himself or herself puts upon it.  Yes, I am an attorney who has been certified by the State Bar Association as a specialist in Labor and Employment law but that does not mean that the only area where I should practice is my specialty.  I believe we take a lot out of our own experience, understanding and ability in this practice by limiting the area where we practice to one small niche.  I also believe that unless we also maintain a wider perspective that we can lose sight of the bigger picture which we are dealing with in any case.  That is not to say that just because I can I am going to start taking on class actions in banking law or become involved with securities but I do believe that it is helpful to both myself and my clients if I have more than a casual understanding of the relationship between labor and employment law and say worker’s compensation or personal injury and business.  There are a lot of cases out there that only require a slight amount of extra effort to bring yourself up to speed in that area so that you may handle it and handle it at a high level of expertise. 

Some of this desire to specialize has been backfiring on attorneys of late.  Attorneys who specialized, especially in a larger firms, in complex real estate transactions are seeing that work drop off dramatically and many now need to reinvent themselves from scratch.  If, even on a small scale, those attorneys have been able to keep their hands in other areas of practice then they not only make themselves more marketable, since after all this is a business too, they bring more value to their clients when they address the matters which they are retained to do. 

Anytime that you take the opportunity to step outside of your area of specialization you take some risk but with some additional effort any such risk can be reduced to little more that the ordinary.  By making the choice to work a little harder to take on these “different” cases you are taking steps to add value to the quality of your services in those other cases which you are working on.  It is my belief that taking this extra effort to more closely understand the ramifications of the work which we do can do nothing but increase the value of the services which we provide to others.

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