Are lawyers being trapped in their practice niches?

  • Print

Jaap Bosman

Jaap Bosman

Recently on the car radio there was an item on academic research that presented a troubling conclusion: Because of specialization in the medical profession, doctors are sometimes unable to make correct diagnoses; some symptoms are missed because they are outside the physician's specialty.

The research had 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 specialties are too far apart.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with an in-house counsel not long ago. He told me about a meeting in which several lawyers from different law firms were involved. Most lawyers were partners at one of the prestige national firms. One lawyer, who was an elderly partner from a midsize regional firm, should have been out of his depth. In reality, the in-house counsel told me, it was precisely this lawyer who was crucially able to connect all the dots and 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 hyperspecialized in one niche. 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.

Let’s compare this with home improvement. When you call a carpenter, every solution will be based on the use of wood, while 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 sets. But call a contractor, and all options would be considered, and the best solution for your home would be chosen. As Abraham H. Maslow wrote in The Psychology of Science: a Reconnaissance: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail..”

Over the past decades, laws and regulations have become increasingly complex and detailed. It has become impossible to be an expert on banking and privacy at the same time, 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 law firm websites or at the great number of subsections in the legal directories to get an idea of where the legal market has gone. And herein lies a danger.

I would argue that specialization may have gone too far. The first generation of specialist lawyers got their initial training from the more generalist lawyers whose apprentices they were. Despite the fact that they developed into specialists, 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 those who were specialists from the day they 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 specialists, this will get worse. It’s a trend we need to stop. This however might prove to be more complicated than it seems.

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 professional tunnel vision.

In a previous article, I explained how for lawyers, human skills will rapidly become 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 and 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?

Jaap Bosman is a leading strategy consultant, investor and one of the founding partners of TGO Consulting, a boutique consultancy focusing on the legal sector operating from New York, the Hague and Hong Kong. Bosman is a regular speaker on the future of the legal sector. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.