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Are attorneys generalists or specialists?

Some posts in this series have suggested that business school models or integration with some business schools would make sense for a law school. That seems like specialist training. One could make an argument that intellectual property, health law, and other certificate programs try to offer ways for a student to graduate with greater depth in one field of law. None is likely to suggest that a graduate is ready to practice in the field; rather less training about the area is required. Still, the default understanding is that an attorney is a generalist. Nonetheless, in practice I recall partners saying one should develop an area of expertise and essentially end up a specialist (although without the title because of bar rules).

So where does the general legal education fit? Fred’s post offers a concrete example of one answer. After the basic training of the first year or two of law school, one could join a business school team and act as a general counsel. Quite quickly, one will find that “choice of entity, financing, intellectual property, and even plain torts or contracts issues” arise and the student will be forced to see that the neat buckets of first year are gone. Indeed, clients (given competition settings have prizes and possibilities of venture funding, these people are clients) will give the attorney a mass of facts and most importantly fail to give many more facts. How does the attorney respond?: Think like a lawyer. The ability to see where the issues may arise, to elicit more information, to know to consult someone with more knowledge (e.g., securities or intellectual property), to explain the risks, to write up the ideas in a plan that will work in the future, and to negotiate with other groups are informed and developed through the case method. That is part of why some say that a law degree is valuable even if one enters other fields. The critical thinking and writing that flows from addressing complex problems or theories allows an attorney to be valuable in many roles.

As to how well that training occurs, the issues of smaller classes and in my opinion a lack of such focus at the undergraduate level drive that investigation which will be left to another post.

2 thoughts on “Are attorneys generalists or specialists?”

  1. Students often ask about course selection and whether to specialize. My advice is to avoid going too far because they’ll have plenty of time in their practicing career to specialize. So, for example, when a student with an open slot in their schedule is trying to figure out whether to take third or fourth IP-related course, I’ll suggest admin. law, fed. courts, or antitrust instead. I am curious about what other profs do? The proliferation of certificate programs in IP and other areas suggests that a high degree of specialization is encouraged, but why? What is driving this? Market demand — manifested by employers or by students? Pedagogy? Are certificate programs a form of or substitute for training?

  2. Is it somewhat a matter of enjoyment–take the classes that you think are going to interest you, really engage you. For some students, that means loading up on a lot of related classes; for others that might mean sampling new areas to see if other things click.

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