The Specialist Generalist

7 02 2011

Participating in a panel event for in-house lawyers last week, I was struck by the versatility of the corporate counsel that were taking part.

 

Keen to demonstrate the depth of her specialism, Lisa the construction partner parked her new car carefully at the front of the firm car park

 

In-house lawyers are so much more accessible to their clients than lawyers in law firms, and this, coupled with the incredible range of business (and personal!) questions that can come across their desk in a day’s work, really does highlight the ability to answer a broad range of questions.  While larger in-house legal teams of course have specialists (employment law, M&A etc.) I suspect that even these lawyers  get called on to advise outside their niche more often than their private practice counterparts.

So the question that sprung to mind, was if many corporate counsel need generalist skills, what does this mean for their relationships with their advisors, particularly given most large law firms start lawyer specialisation so early in their careers?

Building on my observation that the variety and accessibility of in-house positions, and taking into account that many in-house lawyers have built up a degree of experience before they move into an organisation, it’s likely that generalist skills can be found in abundance in the legal team. Is it therefore the case that when corporate counsel instruct external lawyers, they are doing so because they need specialist advice? Given the pace of change and breadth of the law these days, particularly if the business is operating internationally, at first glance this would seem sensible, because no lawyer (however good) could hope to keep up-to-date across the board.

My instinct however is that there are no hard and fast rules here, as the client’s needs will  vary on the situation. Some clients will need specialist advice because they don’t have the skills in-house (or perhaps they do, but they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the particular matter). Others may want a generalist “replica” of an in-house lawyer who can simply add capacity to the in-house team and interface directly with the business people. Some may just pick up the phone and “phone a friend”, and care less about who actually does the resulting work.

The choice of external counsel is however heightened on high-stakes matters. Does the client choose a top-drawer “name” specialist, ranked in directories from here to Timbuktu, or do they go for a more seasoned “trusted advisor” type who may require specialist support from elsewhere around the firm, but can provide much wider support around things like  stakeholder management and communication?

Personally, I believe both types of lawyer can add tremendous value and have their place. I do wonder though, to what extent the “trusted advisor” role will change as the next generation of senior lawyers are those who have spent their entire careers advising on fairly narrow areas of law.

One final observation I have is that there are relatively few true industry specialists. In reality, a specialist technology sector lawyer is really a specialist IT lawyer; a specialist entertainment lawyer maybe a licensing expert. Perhaps this is the way that the “trusted advisor” role could develop. Lawyers who have deep industry experience, acting for many different clients (perhaps at different stages of an industry value chain) in the sector, with this knowledge meaning that they advise on many different areas of law in addition to their core specialism.

So, why not take a look at who else your clients instruct? Are you the only firm or team in the game, or is there a panel (formal or informal)? Who, if anyone, gets the generalist work? Is specialisation getting you the instructions and clients you want? Can you do a gap analysis to show the skills & experience that you have compared to the profile you would like to develop?

And finally, what would you do if you were in-house and the C.E.O. walked into your office needing immediate advice on how he could save his dog, Beefcake, from the legal consequences of taking a bite out of the postman…..