When to Specialise

Feb 2013

We have decided to spotlight on a specific trend in the legal market – namely the Specialisation issue.

Given how the market is developing, we consider this an area worth addressing as it has far reaching implications for lawyers at all levels of qualification, in both private practice and in-house. We feel today it is not so much a question of whether to specialise, but rather when to specialise.


Over the years, there has been a growing trend that is becoming increasingly evident in Scotland and is even more prevalent in the English legal market place, namely the trend to specialisation and the move away from the general practice. This is a phenomenon that has developed during the course of the 1990s, and constitutes just one of the many developments that we have been experiencing in the legal market place over the years. Specialisation has arisen from different market factors – political, technological, economic – that all influence the structure of the market and the competition. In recent years, some of the many changes to the structure of the legal market include the ABS, high profile local and cross- border mergers the emergence of the Interim lawyer and the expansion of in house legal teams, to name but a few. These developments concern every legal practice across the board, and consequently affect the broader commercial strategy of firms/organisations, as well as affecting the successful achievement of the career objectives of the individual lawyer.

In terms of response to this trend, we have observed reactive and proactive approaches, both of which work in their own way. From clients, some responses have included streamlining or consolidation of activities, merging practices or selling parts of the practice. Candidates also adopt a variety of strategic approaches, from a planned early specialisation to retraining at a later date in a different practice area, to further study in order to open up their options for specialisation.

Early specialisation

Clients look for candidates with good potential. Where you have limited experience, you have to have researched the area in which you wish to specialise and be prepared and able to clearly explain why you are interested in this area, as well as why a firm should consider you. A lack of knowledge and hesitancy should be avoided. Enthusiasm has to be informed and a considered approach to communicating your transferable skills has to be adopted, both in your CV and at the interview stage. In fact, with no proven track record in that particular area, you have to really sell your enthusiasm, commitment and motivation. Firms see you as an investment but you have to be worthy of this investment – you need to communicate in no uncertain terms your capabilities and competencies.

Handling your own career

Don't lose sight of your career plan. Given your skills profile, are you working in the practice best offering scope for personal and professional development? Is there a skills profile/firm profile match? A property lawyer operating within a mainly corporate practice may ultimately be limiting his/her options for partnership or even senior level positions. Think about it…how far can you take your skills profile? Similarly will you become too experienced and too well paid to be able to make a sideways move (as you see it) to a more junior level position to allow for retraining within a different specialist area? Others may view this as a downward step, given the salary/experience ratio, and firms may be less willing to offer you that opportunity than to a more junior level lawyer. This allows the firm to match salary and experience, as well as allowing them to train up staff within that specific corporate culture.

More senior lawyers bring experience, market knowledge, reputation, followings and the corporate cultural baggage of another firm! You consider your years of experience as a strength you bring, other firms may form a different opinion. They may consider this as a weakness and as a result draw conclusions, rightly or wrongly, about your adaptability to new corporate cultures. This is why it is very important to consider the retraining issue, and not wait 6-8 years before looking closely at the skills profile/firm profile match. If there is no match, then how likely is this to change in the short to medium to long-term future? Given current trends to specialise, then you should be looking to find yourself in the working environment most suited to your skills that will allow you to develop and progress. Career planning is integral to your professional and personal success.

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