Jayne Harrison, partner and head of employment law at Cleggs Solicitors, has been practicing law for 17 years. As part of our features dedicated to young lawyers and newly law graduates, here she shares her opinion with Lawyer Monthly on whether it is best to be a specialist or generalist.
In most modern-day practices, it is considered unusual to be a generalist or an “all-round” lawyer. The law changes so frequently, that it would be difficult to keep up with every area.
Therefore, in medium to large law firms they will cover a wide range of areas by employing specialist law teams. For this reason, having a specialism when qualifying will enhance your chances of employment. Alternatively, you may want to work for an in-house law team or at a high-street firm, in which case a more general knowledge may be preferred. However, even these solicitors tend to lean towards one preferred area.
With that in mind there are a wide range of legal specialisms with the most common types of law practiced in the UK being:
- Criminal law
- Employment law
- Property law
- Commercial law
- Commercial Litigation
- Personal Injury
- Intellectual property
- Family law
It is useful to have some knowledge in other areas of law but in my opinion the benefits of specialising far outweigh any negatives. Whether you are studying at university or law school, taking part in your training contract or in the process of qualifying it is worth bearing in mind the following tips:
- Practice an area that interests you
When gaining experience at university or during your training seat, really think about what area interests you most as this will influence your decision to specialise or not. I personally chose to focus on employment law because I found it the most interesting and relatable area of law. It is a very fast paced area with continual changes in case law and a great mix of contentious and uncontentious work.
- Don’t forget the client is king
Nearly all clients really appreciate and actively seek a lawyer with specialist knowledge and understanding. Many areas have niche fields within them that require an in-depth knowledge of that particular litigation. For example, employment law covers issues such as redundancy, health and safety and worker rights, while family law includes everything from divorce to adoption. An all-round solicitor will most likely not have the level of knowledge required to capably deal with the case so the client will automatically choose a specialist. Also, if you find one specialism particularly interesting then you may miss out on some great cases by generalising.
- Your colleagues are on hand to help you
As an employment lawyer, I regularly encounter other specialist areas of the law. For example, I could have a client that wants to dissolve a partnership but there are disagreements over assets such as property or product designs. In this case, I may have enough general knowledge to competently deal with the case but often I will consult colleagues within my firm who are specialists in commercial, property or intellectual property law.
Knowing which path to choose can be daunting but your knowledge and experience with different types of law will increase with studying, and more importantly, with training experience.
Do your research into which type of firm you would like to work for as that will help dictate your direction. A boutique property law firm will certainly require a property specialist whereas working in-house at a company may require a more general knowledge of the law.
If you do decide to specialise then I would advise gaining as much experience as possible across as many areas as you can. You will be practising in this for the rest of your career so you want to make sure you enjoy it and find it interesting.