Law specialization has become increasingly common — almost a necessity.
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Abraham Lincoln, licensed to practice law in 1837 in Illinois, may be the archetypal general practice attorney. The Lincoln Legal Papers Project identified over 5,600 cases and nearly 100,000 documents related to Lincoln’s law practice. The paper trail revealed scores of cases involving debt collection, business partnerships, estate settlements, divorce and real estate litigation. There are arson cases, a burglary trial, a half-dozen counterfeiting cases, several admiralty claims, a murder and significant work as a railroad attorney. All this, and he did it without a computer!
If he were with us today, it’s likely that Lincoln would not have the time or knowledge to pursue such a broad range of legal cases and clients. Law specialization has become increasingly prevalent — almost a necessity — as firms of all sizes differentiate and add value by focusing on a particular practice type, industry or location.
Specialization is the name of the game across many areas of the economy. Early dating websites have given way to dating apps catering to cat lovers, farmers, vegans and tech geeks. Financial services startups have carved out niche segments for millennials, homeowners, entrepreneurs and bitcoin investors.
Similarly, law firms are finding success by focusing on a particular industry or area of law, such as real estate, environmental law, immigration, civil litigation or a host of other specialties.
Drivers Behind Practice Specialization
The business world has increased in complexity over the last 20 years. Technology, regulatory and compliance issues all add to a mix of challenges that vary by industry, location and company size. In legal services, specialization has been spurred by rapid change. Here is a quick look at some key factors to consider.
Commoditization of Legal Documents
Common legal documents and forms such as wills, real estate agreements, contracts and divorce agreements are now available online. A general practice attorney is not required to establish a new business process with each new client. While it may not be cost-effective for an attorney to simply draft a basic will or contract, that attorney becomes a trusted advisor when reviewing an estate plan or a real estate transaction, giving clients confidence that a particular contract or transaction is in their best interest.
Practicing Law on Internet Time
The internet, mobile communications and emerging smart technologies offer firms greater visibility but also bring increased competition and noise in the marketplace. The rate of change has accelerated, increasing the volume of information about a given industry, company or case. In today’s information economy, far more time and attention are required to develop a broad knowledge base.
The upshot: When firms focus on one or a few specialty practice areas, both clients and law firms see benefits.
Ways Clients Win
The reasons to specialize include these benefits to your law firm’s clients.
1. Guidance that relates to a client’s business or situation. A focused practitioner can relate better to clients and offer advice in the context of an individual client’s specific needs. A family lawyer who has handled hundreds of adoption cases will have a unique empathy for the emotional and practical needs of adoptive parents, for example. A law firm focused on immigration will have a deep understanding of laws regarding immigrant visa petitions, filing requirements and procedures and processing times for applications in the U.S., as well as language skills and cultural understanding of the turbulent immigration climate.
2. Better outcomes. A client who seeks the guidance of an attorney with experience in similar cases reduces the risk of delays or, worst case, costly errors. Advice from a knowledgeable specialist can make the difference between success and failure. When working with a practice specialist, the client does not have to pay for the attorney to “get up to speed.”
3. Access to a pool of experts. Practice specialists tend to network with other professionals in their industry. This added benefit provides outreach to a more comprehensive network of specialized advisors. A real estate attorney, for example, may have relationships with mortgage lenders, title companies and inspection services. In the case of a dispute over an easement or chain of title, this person will be able to manage it to resolution.
Ways Law Firms Win
For the attorney or firm that specializes in a certain area of law, the advantages are numerous.
4. Growth in valued expertise. The more of a particular type of matter an attorney handles, the more informed that attorney will be on subsequent cases. Often the attorney or firm has established relationships with opposing counsel, court personnel and judges, which can streamline better case outcomes.
5. Increased confidence. A track record of experience increases clients’ confidence that an attorney is the right person for a matter. Having a solid knowledge base also increases attorney confidence, which can be directed into writing, public speaking and community engagement — all of which attract new clients.
6. Greater efficiency. Legal requirements, documents, workflows and filings become rote knowledge over time, enabling more experienced lawyers and staff to work more efficiently. Now, repetitive document drafting is being replaced by automated tools and templates, saving even more time. Law firms with specialized practices have access to practice management software features designed for their practice areas and jurisdiction. In parallel with increasing law specialization, legal technology is advancing to power these new practices with automated workflows, intake forms, templates, and payment schedules unique to tax law, family law, litigation or countless other practice areas. There is no need to reinvent the wheel with each new case.
7. Increased profitability. A specialty practice focus can be more profitable than general practice firms. The efficiencies brought by knowledge and experience, combined with effective practice management and document automation tools, allow attorneys to handle more clients and boost realization rates.
Practice area specialization has become increasingly important as firms of all sizes differentiate their services by focusing on a client niche or need, industry or location. Concentrating on a particular area of law lets you offer knowledge and experience of high value to clients and grow in your role as a trusted advisor.
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