Over the past few months, it’s become more and more clear that law schools and law firms are training future attorneys that the only way for them to be successful in the legal profession is to be a “one-trick pony”, or, stated otherwise, to be hyper-specialized in one nuanced area of the law. While this may be true for certain areas of the law such as bankruptcy practice (due to the technical nuances of the Code), the uniform statement that hyper-specialization is the only way to succeed in the legal profession is simply false. One-trick ponies can only do one trick by definition. So, what happens when you have a client with a coral (pun intended) full of problems and the only trick you know doesn’t solve a single one of those problems? There are two potential outcomes to this dilemma: either the lawyer will refer the case out to someone in the community who is better equipped to handle this particular client’s legal problems (and lose the business opportunity and potential goodwill from the client), or, worse, keep the case and potentially commit malpractice every day because they are now in a horse show they never signed up for. But, when law firms and law schools are teaching that in order to be successful in the legal profession, you have to only be good at just one thing, then why would a young student fresh out of law school go against the grain and do something different?
Historically, to be a lawyer was to be a “generalist” and a problem solver by nature. Sure, some law firms were dedicated to the handling of complex anti-trust disputes as opposed to blue-collar crimes, but generally, all lawyers had the ability to handle most of their clients’ complex problems regardless of the subject matter. “Specializing” in the legal profession didn’t come until much, much later.
This goes without saying that competence in the legal profession is an absolute necessity. A lawyer shouldn’t take on a matter without some baseline knowledge of the subject matter at hand. I, for example, am not a CPA, nor do I claim to be. Nonetheless, some baseline knowledge of accounting, for example, is necessary to understand our clients’ problems to effectively advise legal solutions for their business. So, a word of advice for all of the law students out there: take as many different courses in as many different subject matters as you can. Take that summer clerkship in an area of the law you didn’t think you’d be interested in. While you should listen to your advisors and law professors, bear in mind that many of them have never practiced law a day in their lives. Law practice is NOT a theoretical exercise and it was never intended to be. Work on trying to break the tendency to be a one-trick pony. You’ll be so much more effective with client communication, case management and overall workflow if you have broad experience in many different subject matters. After all, a client’s expectation is that if you take on their case you are competent enough to handle it.
Don’t be a one-trick pony. Learn new skills and be comfortable being uncomfortable.