Specialist or Generalist?
Is it better early on to be capable in multiple fields or masterful in only one?
THE QUESTION OF WHEN, or whether, to consider a practice niche is highly debated among junior lawyers. Are associates, articles or even summer students more marketable if they have at least some focus in a particular area of law? Or would they be more sought after as generalists?
Craig Kinsman suggests, even if you have the desire for a specialty, “be patient in your dream. Starting as a generalist makes for a better long-term specialist.” That’s one of the prime reasons why Bennett Jones LLP mandates a rotation system for articling students, says Kinsman, Director of Professional Development and Student Programs (Alberta).
By seeing how different lawyers in diverse practice areas interact with their clients, students gain a broad exposure to the law, as well as client relationship skills. Often, Kinsman says, students come into the law firm with a relatively clear sense of what their interests are. But it’s not uncommon at all for students, “after three rotations, to say, ‘I had no idea of the real day-to-day practice of doing X versus Y law. I really enjoy this work.’”
SEE THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS
For Cynthia Brunet, the question of how to focus her practice resolved itself early on. Ideally, she feels articling students and associates should explore multiple practice areas. However, directly upon completion of her articles Brunet was offered a position within the same firm, the bulk of the work in regulatory financial services. “This was a very, very specific field of law, primarily banking and insurance,” she recalls. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I thought, ‘I might fall in love with the field.’”
Brunet, an associate with Langlois Lawyers, LLP in Montréal, says if an opportunity in a specific area comes up, give yourself enough time to try it out — also, see where it may lead. As such, today, Brunet not only focuses on compliance and regulatory financial services, but has added litigation. “I like to help businesses with their compliance needs, but also, if ever they have litigation needs from a regulatory standpoint, then I can be of assistance,” she says.
Joseph Adler, a partner at Hoffer Adler LLP, a franchise law boutique in Toronto, believes lawyers “are stronger advocates for clients if they can see issues through more than their own lens.” Adler’s personal practice is primarily franchising, but “when I’m drafting a contract, I consult our litigators, as they bring a different perspective.” As a result, Hoffer Adler’s younger lawyers gain expertise in the firm’s franchising, litigation and IP departments.
Further, from a career development point of view, Adler suggests casting the net a little wider, rather than looking for a specific niche early in your career. “Otherwise, you could be pigeonholing yourself into a very restricted area and may not get a job in that area of interest. Or you might realize the area doesn’t align with your expectations, and where do you go from there?”