A few weeks ago, I was listening to a purported expert on the legal profession discuss recent trends in the legal industry. This person discussed how many lawyers and law firms are specializing in order to stay competitive in the legal marketplace. This individual suggested that attorneys need to pick a specialty so that the lawyers could attract additional business and build a more robust practice. However, this advice did not seem aimed at small-firm lawyers, who comprise the vast majority of attorneys within the legal profession. Small-firm lawyers usually need to become generalists for a variety of reasons, and lawyers looking to start or expand their own practices should keep this in mind.
One of the reasons why small-firm lawyers become generalists is because this makes it easier for them to generate business. Handling all manner of legal issues can help a lawyer originate all types of business that can keep a lawyer busy with work. For instance, when I first started my practice, I handled all types of legal issues. I worked on parking tickets, wills, closings, and basically anything else I could sink my teeth into and generate business.
Even after my business was well-established, I still tended to be a generalist. Most clients just want one lawyer or law firm to handle all of their legal issues. It is usually easier for a client to deal with one point person rather than multiple people so that the clients’ legal issues can be more easily managed. When clients work with larger law firms, it is possible that the client can work with attorneys at different practice areas at the firm to handle all of their issues. However, when a client works with a smaller firm, one lawyer usually needs to put on many hats to best serve a client. If a lawyer refers a client to another lawyer, the attorney can justifiably be nervous that the client will just use this other lawyer for legal matters moving forward.
In my career, I have handled all manner of legal issues for clients so that clients did not go to different lawyers. This involved handling tax issues, employment law matters, and all of the various corporate issues that a company faces at it operates and expands. Most of the time, the matters were on the periphery of my experience, so I knew a thing or two about the matters before beginning the representation and handling the matter once made it easier to handle the matter for clients in the future.
Being a generalist can also make it much easier for small-firm lawyers to develop referral connections that can be vital sources of business. Many lawyers have connections with brokers, accountants, or other professionals who may regularly refer work to these lawyers from clients that they themselves serve. Sometimes, this work is pretty consistent and involves the same type of legal issue.
However, depending on the referral source, a referral might involve all manner of legal issues. If lawyers are generalists, it is much easier for the attorney to help the referral. If the lawyer cannot perform work, the referral source might refer the work to another lawyer and might refer work to the other lawyers in the future as well. Being a generalist can make it easier to accept work which is not only beneficial in the present, but in the future as well.
Being a generalist can also be helpful for small-firm lawyers so that attorneys can understand numerous concepts related to a matter, which can improve a representation. Even though a client may come to a lawyer with a matter that involves one type of legal issue, many legal subjects might be involved in a given matter. For instance, bankruptcy is often a consideration in many commercial matters, and estate law might be important to certain types of personal injury cases. Lawyers who work at larger firms might be able to rely on the expertise of other people at a shop to field questions about legal issues at the periphery of a representation.
However, small-firm lawyers usually do not have other lawyers upon which they can rely when answering questions at the periphery of a representation. As a result, lawyers usually need to handle work that might not be directly relevant to a representation themselves. Being a generalist can help lawyers answer all manner of questions that might arise during a representation, even if the questions are unexpected, which can be helpful to serving clients.
All told, being a specialist can help lawyers stand out in the marketplace for legal services, but being a specialist might be a luxury that small-firm lawyers do not have. Being a generalist can help small-firm lawyers expand their practices, originate business, and best serve clients with a broad array of legal issues.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.