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To specialize or not to specialize?

Matt Chaney//May 17, 2018

To specialize or not to specialize?

Matt Chaney//May 17, 2018


Representatives from North Carolina’s largest law firms and law schools recently advised aspiring lawyers on the risks and rewards of law practice specialization.

While most agreed that the safe bet is to get broad experiences early on in one’s legal practice, others conceded that the legal business doesn’t always allow for that. In discussing the matter, representatives often stressed the importance of keeping an open mind early in one’s career, while working hard to develop transferable legal skills.

“You have to be thoughtful when developing a specialization,” said Charlotte business litigator Adam Doerr, who was representing Robinson Bradshaw. “You need to foster skills that will serve you well even if the market changes.”

In discussing specialization, many referred to the market for various specialties, which they said fluctuates based on location and larger economic forces. Some spoke about the tried and true practice areas that they believe will always have a place in any legal market.

Regardless of specialization, almost everyone interviewed indicated that the biggest factor in a young lawyer’s success is motivation. Whether a lawyer specializes early or works as a general practitioner, everyone involved stressed the importance of having a passion for the craft.

Risk and Reward

Mark Anderson, a partner at McGuireWoods’ Raleigh office, is a proponent of generalization.

“Young lawyers are better served to come into a firm where they’re getting a broad experience and skill base,” Anderson said in an interview. “My observation is it’s better … to get as much experience as you can early on doing the actual work.”

His rationalization, like many others interviewed, is that starting broadly allows for young lawyers to develop their skills until they find the area that best suits their interests and talents.

Again and again, attorneys and administrators preached the importance of generalizing, but some hinted at the broader reality.

“My advice to the lawyer is they should have an idea of where they want their practice to go, but should resist the temptation and learn how to be a lawyer,” said Sean Jones, an administrative partner at K&L Gates in Charlotte. “But they’re going to have to eventually specialize.”

A different approach

Francie Scott, an assistant dean of the office of career and professional development at the Wake Forest University School of Law, said that she and the university take a different approach.

“Students are generally getting hired for a particular practice area, so that’s why I want them to be thoughtful during law school about where they want to be,” Scott said.

According to Scott, only about 10-15 percent of students coming out of Wake Forest get hired by a large firm with the resources to allow their employees to try out different practice areas. She said the rest will be hired to work in smaller firms where they’ll be asked to specialize early.

“I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of movement in different practice areas once they’re out there and working,” she said.

As a result, Scott said she teaches a course for first-year law students at Wake to introduce them to the various practice areas so they may begin focusing on areas that interest them most.

“I teach that with an eye toward making their summer work meaningful so they’re developing a story for a potential employer and developing skills towards a particular area of practice,” she said.

Lori Patton, the chief learning officer at Womble Bond Dickinson in Durham, added: “It’s tough to be a generalist. Folks who are most successful in our environment are those with a specialty.”

‘Great area for startups’

Doerr said that the market on specializations changes regularly.

“Specializations are more or less in demand at different times,” Doerr said. “If you pick a good specialization early, it can be very valuable, but if you choose to specialize and the economy changes, it can put you in a tough position.”

Several interviewees cited the economic downturn of 2008 leading to lawyers with highly specialized real estate practice areas going out of business. They said that since the housing market has bounced back, some of that demand has returned, but that it could easily go away again.

Many of those who spoke with Lawyers Weekly are located in the Research Triangle, and as a result, talked about how their proximity to technology and healthcare companies factors into the type of law they practice.

“It’s one of the fastest growing areas in the country,” said Blake Fricks, senior attorney and director of professional development at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. “We’re located in a great area for startups and as a result there’s a vibrant start up practice.”

‘Don’t limit yourself’

When discussing the practice areas which currently have the most demand, attorneys and administrators mentioned everything from immigration and healthcare to environmental and intellectual property to regulatory and cybersecurity law.

Coincidentally, some of the areas chosen as having the highest demand by some were chosen by others as having the lowest.

Technology-related practice areas were almost universally popular, regardless of location, but especially in the Research Triangle and Charlotte. Many responders also cited what they called tried-and-true practice areas like banking law, corporate law, transactional law and litigation.

While there was no consensus on which areas burgeoning lawyers should pursue, there was great consensus on the matter of having a passion for the area one enters.

“Don’t limit yourself, no matter what you do,” said Dexter Smith, the assistant dean of admissions at Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh. “Sometimes what you think you don’t want to do is what you develop a passion for. Be dedicated to the craft and open.”

Patton agreed, citing the fact that many practices lose lawyers between their third and fifth years of work. She emphasized that having a passion can drive a young attorney through the rigors of the job.

“It’s important to say, ‘What do I enjoy in life and have a passion for?’” she said. “And take your practice and intertwine that.”

Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @NCLWChaney

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