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For Small Firms, Is it Better to Be a Specialist or Generalist?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

One of the easiest ways to set yourself apart from the crowd and to gain expertise in a field is to narrow your focus. But pick too narrow of a focus and you might find yourself struggling to stay busy. Have too general a practice and it may be difficult to stand out from other firms.

Are small firms and solo practitioners better off becoming a jack of all trades or mastering one narrow area of law? Should your firm seek to be a general practice, helping clients throughout their life, or bury itself into a niche area of law? The answer, of course, is "it depends."

The Benefits of Specialization

When you operate a general practice, you're forced to master and balance a larger area of law, helping clients on everything from divorce to personal injury to probate. If you like learning and moving quickly, that can be a rewarding experience -- as can working with a client throughout his or her life.

However, focusing in on a specific area of practice offers many benefits as well. Laws have grown increasingly complex and specialization allows attorneys to master niche areas. That expertise is attractive to clients who need lawyers for specific matters only. That expertise also allows you to reach out to a narrower class of potential clients, reducing your marketing expenses.

Focus on Your Client Base

Of course, your firm's focus will depend largely on your existing and potential client base. Want to practice bird law? That's great -- so long as there are enough developers, municipalities or Audubon Societies in your area who need, say, some help with their migratory bird permits. Similarly, you might be able to corner the market in same-sex parent custody disputes in New York City, while you'll need to operate a more generalized family practice if you are hanging your shingle in Montana.

In this way, specialization often happens organically. You take a few cases, begin to master an area of law and suddenly you're no longer John Esquire, all-purpose lawyer, but the guy who handled Bill's employment discrimination suit and hey, my sister just got fired by her abusive boss and is looking for a lawyer.

That market-guided, organic growth has fueled many successful attorneys. But there's also a risk of going too much with the flow. Instead of leaving your practice up to fates, couple organic growth with a serious examination of where you want your firm to be in the future and what areas of law will get you there. And of course, if you do specalize, make sure that you don't violate any ethics rules when you talk about it.

Whether you're a generalist or a specialist, feel free to let us know your thoughts via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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