Specialisation Does Not a Lawyer Make?

by Dean R P Edwards

I had been recently discussing the future prospects for a generalist practitioner with a fellow young lawyer. Specialisation is the buzzword these days and every other lawyer appends to their legal practice some kind of niche – be it Property & Real Estate, M&A, Insolvency, and so forth.

It is with some relief that Jonathan Sumption QC, a Justice of the UK Supreme Court, thinks this is a rather bad idea. (You can read more here, although the original story is hidden behind a Sunday Times paywall.) 

His Honour takes aim at the stifling of imagination and curiosity that can follow the specialisation in a particular legal field. He asks, validly, what a lawyer could be with a more general fluency in the law – and, I am sure he would agree, in the humanities.

Sumption is an apt case study, given his wide-ranging career as a lawyer and, in a parallel life, historian. It is worth reading a recent story covering Sumption’s life and work in the Guardian.

The proposition that a lawyer ought not to specialise may come across as somewhat patronising. After all, what is a young lawyer to do with the vagaries and demands of the marketplace?

Sumption’s comment then can be seen as directed at the legal establishment, as a call to enrich young lawyers’ exposure to a broader field of legal knowledge and experience. Many young lawyers may find these sorts of outlets in the form of volunteer work, say, for a community legal centre, where the clients’ needs range greatly. But the professional avenues for broader experience are narrower.

The issue, however, goes as well to legal education. Law school is a gruelling experience; I need not recount here the common lament of any law student. The exposure to legal knowledge is broad – but what of the practicality of arguing the law, and witnessing firsthand how law in fact works in the context of submissions and investigation? Three-hour examinations and research essays were no preparation for the daily grind of correspondence, telephone calls and open court submissions.

Perhaps the issue is even better illustrated by the substitution of the articled clerk experience with the regime of classroom- and assessment-based practical legal training. We have largely replaced the stresses and often unpredictable demands of the workplace with an extension of a school environment. This replacement might suit a deskbound, narrowly focused lawyer, but at the cost of encouraging a more intellectually demanding profession.

In my case, I had no intention of becoming a lawyer until I worked within a generalist practice. The experience has its limitations, particularly if a young lawyer is looking for the kind of intimate knowledge of procedure and practice in one area of law.

But the varied experience is a rare gem for those looking for an introduction to our justice system. For that I am thankful and enjoin others to consider what Sumption has said. The so-called “brain of Britain” may have a point.