A Matter of Circumstance

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For Mindi Conerly, the answer to the age-old question of whether to generalize or specialize was easy: She does both.

The Montrose, Colo., lawyer is a litigator and a transactional attorney. She says her dual skills benefit each side of her practice.

When she drafts a contract, she reviews her work by asking, “If I were litigating against this document, how would I try to break it?” That learned approach, she says, helps her an­ticipate potential attacks and tighten language to avoid vulnerability.

On the flip side, her drafting experience will kick in during litigation, allowing her to draw out information from witnesses to find faults in the intent and language of the contracts at issue.

But Conerly’s answer is the exception. The question of whether to specialize or generalize continues to vex many solo and small-firm lawyers. Most states strictly regulate the circumstances in which lawyers may refer to themselves as specialists. But even attorneys who don’t hold themselves out to clients as specialists may want to focus on one or two practice areas.

In some cases, the decision is made by circumstance. For example, attorneys who leave large firms or government practices tend to feel most comfortable continuing in the same vein of practice.

Dallas lawyer Jimmy Verner answered the question a different way. He started out as a corporate law litigator at a small Mississippi firm, but found the practice a bit dull. “I got bored,” Verner admits. “Everything takes too long in corporate litigation. It goes on for years.” He quit and moved to Dallas a few years later, dabbling in several other areas of law.

Then in 1990, a friend suggested he try family law, and soon he was specializing in the area. He loved the pace and the workout for his litigation skills. And his corporate law expertise still factored in, especially in complex cases where he had to divvy up the assets of family businesses, large stock portfolios and the like.

Verner says the advantages of specializing range from a deeper understanding of the subject matter to the ability to charge higher fees because you become known as the go-to lawyer in a particular area.

A Generalist By Default

But for some, the trend toward specialization can backfire. Herb Dubin runs a solo practice in Rockville, Md. Years ago, he was part of a small firm that practiced transportation law, helping clients navigate the maze of federal regulations that applied to moving people and goods around the country.

Unfortunately, the market for his specialty dried up when the airlines were deregulated in the 1970s and many regulations applying to railroad and trucking transport were eliminated.

Dubin says he and his late law partner tried to take their expertise in dealing with government regulators into other areas of practice, but they found they were unable to generate enough of a client base to make a go of it.

“I just don’t have that marketing personality,” Dubin says. “I knew I had some transferable knowledge, but selling that to clients was another matter.”

So Dubin became a generalist by default, taking almost any case that came in the door, from auto accidents to federal criminal defense to attorney discipline to family law. In many instances, he learned a new area because a client or friend needed his help.

Dubin says the key to his success as a jack-of-all-trades generalist is that he is, above all, a trial lawyer at heart. “I am a litigator if nothing else,” he says. “And that’s transferable to anything.”

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