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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Has specialization reached its zenith?

Last weekend, when driving the car, I listened to the radio. There was an item on academic research that had brought to light that due to the medical profession’s specialization doctors were sometimes unable to make the correct diagnosis as some symptoms are missed because they were outside their specialism. The research had particularly focused on a relationship between heart failure and cancer. The fact that certain types of heart failure would increase the risk of cancer had up till now been missed, simply because the two specialisms are too far apart.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with an in-house counsel not long ago. He had told me about a meeting in which several lawyers from a number of law firms were involved. Most lawyers were partner at one of the prestige national firms. One lawyer, who was an elderly partner from a mid-size regional firm, should have been out of his depth. In reality however, the in-house counsel told me, it was exactly this lawyer who was crucially able to connect all the dots and had had the most valuable contribution to the meeting. Having two decades of experience in a more general practice gave this partner a clear advantage.

This experience seems to resonate with what I am hearing more and more frequently when speaking with in-house teams. Clients are looking for lawyers who have a more holistic view of the law. Clients prefer lawyers who are not just hyper specialist in one niche area of the law. They want their lawyers to be sparring partners who not only understand the client’s business but also are able to see legal issues in a wider context.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

Let’s compare this with home improvement. When you call a carpenter, every solution will be based on the use of wood as where a mason will revert to brick and stone. Both will look at the situation from their own expertise and will suggest solutions that are within their skill set. However when you would have called a contractor, all options would be considered and the best solution for your home would be chosen. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (Abraham H. Maslow (1962), Toward a Psychology of Being)

Over the past decades laws and regulations have increasingly become more complex and detailed. It has become impossible to at the same time be an expert on banking and on privacy despite the fact that both are of a regulatory nature. To cover one area in great depth lawyers have grown into specialists. You only need to look at websites of law firms or at the great number of subsections in the legal directories to get an idea of where the legal market has gone. And here in lies a danger.

‘The second generation of specialists already lacks important basic knowledge’

I would argue that specialization may have gone too far. The first generation of legal specialist lawyers got their initial training from the more generalist lawyers who’s apprentices they were. Despite the fact that they developed into specialist over the years, these lawyers still had had a broad legal training. This is not the case for the second generation of specialists we are seeing today. Today’s generation has been trained by specialists from the day the joined the legal profession. These lawyers may have developed a deep expert knowledge and experience in one small area of the law, but they lack the proper knowledge (and perhaps interest) to see the wider picture. These lawyers will use a ‘hammer’ to solve a problem.

The point of this article is not that I do not recognize that legal specialization is unavoidable or that I think it is a bad thing. In an increasingly complex world clients turn to lawyers because they are the specialists, have the experience and know best market practice. The point is that increasingly the specialists lack the general understanding of the law. With each new generation of new specialists being trained by specialist this will get worse. A trend we need to stop. This however might prove to be more complicated than it seems.

‘Will today’s generation of partners be able to train the next generation?’

From an organizational point of view most business law firms have developed into silos. The firm is divided into different practice groups along the lines of legal specializations. More often than not communication between silos is poor. A young lawyer who joins a law firm is assigned to a silo where he or she is educated and trained by a specialist. A perfect recipe for developing a professional ‘tunnel vision’.

In one of my previous articles I have explained how for lawyers human skills will become rapidly more important that technical legal skills. Law firms will need to re-engineer the way in which they train their young lawyers. Going through law school has always been very individualistic an competitive. Law firms themselves are also largely individualistic and competitive. Now clients demand that lawyers are able to smoothly cooperate in multidisciplinary teams. We will need to train on teamwork, we will need to train on human skills. On top of that we will need to educate our lawyers on a ‘legal sixth sense’. General legal knowledge and a well-developed ‘legal instinct’. The problem is, in a law firm with only specialists, who is going to do that training?


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