Updated: Feb 14, 2020
The word “lawyer” in the early 90s in India, automatically popped an image of a person dressed in court mandated black and whites advising clients on a broad spectrum of issues. Some of them became ‘trusted’ advisors to large family businesses. They were indeed generalists. Somewhere down the line, with liberalization and privatisation of various sectors, ‘specialization’ became a buzz word. Gradually, that specialization even paved the way for over specialization. Today, many youngsters decide on their area of specialization even before they join law school.
Most certainly there is a place in the profession for both generalist and specialist lawyers. However based on dramatic changes and complexity in Indian laws and the regulatory environment, clients are crying out for return of the jack at all trades – the lawyer who specializes in finding business solutions to legal problems. More than even before, the most valued legal advisor is the one who is willing to provide holistic advice and who has the ability to simplistically present a complex web of issues. This is not to suggest that generalist lawyers are expected to cut corners and say ‘yes’ to whatever their clients want to do. A generalist lawyer, with experience, develops the ability to tie things up and understand the entire mix of issues, be it tax, anti-trust or regulatory and this naturally results in fully thought through outcomes. This is what domestic and international clients want. This is what helps clients’ make informed decisions.
The idea of this article is not to undermine specialization. Given the way the legal profession is growing and with the ever increasing number of practice areas, a degree of specialisation is only natural and also desirable. This therefore places a responsibility on law firms that encourage a mix of generalist and specialist lawyers, to find a balance that promotes specialisation and avoids a silo-based approach to training, practice and advice. Lawyers need to be trained to never lose sight of the “big picture”.
Frankly, law is not rocket science. To call ourselves an ‘expert’ in any area suggests that our knowledge is complete and the subject is plateaued at the level of our knowledge. When we start thinking of ourselves as ‘experts’ we limit our capacity to learn and absorb from others’ experiences. We may lose out on fresh ideas that often come from people who are not bogged down or overly immersed in that particular subject or area of practice. We should replace the word ‘expert’ with ‘experienced’. Expertise almost suggests a full stop to learning whereas experiences never end.
While on the one hand, client’s businesses are expecting a multi-disciplinary holistic approach, a good number of lawyers feel embarrassed positioning themselves as generalists fearing that if they offer experience and capabilities in more than three or four areas of practice, it will diminish their value. This is an unfortunate trend. We have often seen specialists revisit their “settled” positions based on inputs from non-specialists. Such debates and discussions have invariably resulted in further development of ideas and jurisprudence in those specialized areas. The ability to cogently package different legal inputs, including from specialists, and present it to a client who doesn’t have to sift through multiple specialist opinions is a matter of pride and should be promoted rather than be seen as a disadvantage.
An instructive experience is from the medical profession. While we value the advancements of and specialisations in the medical profession, we often miss the general practitioners who could give all round advise. Doctor friends have pointed out that, possibly, 25 to 30 per cent of the patients admitted for treatment at hospitals would never have been there had they been treated by general practitioners, which, while a vanishing breed, would have provided a filter.
To prevent the legal profession from going in that direction, we have to work to train legal professionals to understand and be confident that (a) the more diverse and broader their knowledge, the more valued they will be; (b) while specialisation is important and necessary, cross pollination of ideas across legal areas and disciplines is key; (c) specialists and non-specialists together promote fresh thinking and jurisprudence. All this will enable lawyers to learn from one other and be better prepared as a business advisor with the distinctive edge that clients value as they look for well thought through business solutions for their complex legal problems. This is what we work towards at AZB.