Avoiding the marching robots: why specialising too early could be a career mistake

From an early age there’s pressure on an individual to make choices that are presented as being “necessary” to achieve certain career goals. But who really knows in school whether you want to pursue a career as a doctor, or lawyer, a music therapist or a chef?

There are certainly some lucky individuals who have a single-minded focus on their career aspirations from a young age, but on the whole, those people are few and far between.

For a long time we’ve seen this pressure to make “necessary” choices put on law students, trainees and NQs with respect to which area of the law they want to specialise in. But is this a good thing? Does it lead to the right choices? What are the consequences of ‘wrong’ choices? And more importantly, is the model of specialising early the right model for millennials and the future of the profession?

As with all conundrums, there are pros and cons for both sides of the argument, and we have to remember, the legal profession is not homogenous. It’s comprised of a myriad of firm types, practice areas and motivations behind individuals entering the profession. Overlay this with the changing expectations of customers, the changing nature of how we work and disruptive technology, and the question as to whether there are dangers in specialising too early is indeed a vexing question.

The reality is, there is no right answer to this question; it ultimately depends on the individual, the type of firm and the complexity of the area of specialism. But if you specialise too early, then you may end up missing an opportunity to experience a practice area to which you are either better suited or you may find infinitely more interesting than the area in which you end up practising.

The current structure of most traineeships requires a decision to be made about a practice area post-qualification even before you have experienced the final seat, and often trainees will feel pressured to accept a position in a particular specialism simply to ensure an NQ position. This can often lead to great uncertainty about whether the choice is the ‘right’ choice, and a ‘wrong’ choice can often result in the individual feeling somewhat disenfranchised, which could see them leave the law long before they’ve really had an opportunity to find ‘their place’.

If you specialise too early, you may miss an opportunity to experience a practice area you find infinitely more interesting

An individual’s decision to change their specialism, or indeed to specialise, will to some extent depend on the type of firm they work for, as it is extremely difficult to jump firms into a new area of law when you don’t have any experience in that particular area of law.

The ability to change specialism typically needs to be supported by the firm, and the firm needs to be structured in such a way that you have an opportunity to continue to work in an area where you can generate sufficient fee revenue while learning a new area and building expertise and a client base. Such arrangements are more likely to be fostered and supported by small and medium-sized firms, as most large law firms do not have flexible enough structures and cost bases to support such a transition.

Firms of all sizes have their pros and cons. One of the biggest advantages of small and medium-sized firms, other than the one above, is the interaction you will have with clients even during your training. In larger firms, you will likely work as part of a bigger team. In the early part of your career, while you may attend client meetings and observe, you may not have a key role to play in providing the advice. The path to partnership is typically much shorter in small to-medium sized firms as well, which many see as an advantage.

One of the disadvantages of working for smaller firms though is the level of remuneration, with many partners in small firms taking home less than an NQ in some of the big US firms. But it’s not all about the money – it’s about life choices and the degree of flexibility and balance a lawyer is looking for.

The choice of firm size therefore is very much about an individual’s personal career objectives. One observation worth noting though, is that it is considered easier making the transition from a larger firm to a small firm, rather than the other way around.

If an individual is concerned about the danger of specialising too early, there is a middle ground, which is to be both a generalist with a specialism, working in a team of likeminded lawyers with complimentary specialisms. More firms are starting to take this approach as clients are expecting lawyers to be more commercially-minded, providing advice that isn’t outside of the law, but that balances the risks with the environment in which the client operates. Lawyers are therefore becoming business advisers and consultants. Taking this approach may well future-proof your career, and reduce the risk that your chosen specialism isn’t one that is in the path of the marching robots.

Simon Walsh (pictured) is a partner at Oury Clark.