To Specialize or Not To Specialize
Whether to specialize in a particular area of law is a nagging question for many young lawyers just starting their careers. In order to make an informed decision, candidates may wish to consider the following questions: Can I gain a competitive edge in today’s job market by specializing in a particular area? What practice areas are most in-demand in the current legal industry? We have asked our ZSA consultants these questions and what follows is a collection of their industry insight.
Hot Practice Areas?
“In Vancouver, it’s a highly competitive market for Commercial Real Estate Associates, Corporate / Securities Associates and Commercial Litigation Associates. All these three are areas where the local market offers far more work than there are enough experienced specialists in the market,” says Mike Race, ZSA’s Client Partner. “Firms typically prefer to look at Associates with at least 2 or 3 years post call experience under their belt within their chosen field.”
With an ever-changing legal landscape, only knowing the current hottest practice areas may not be enough. “Hot practice areas are more sensitive to the general economic climate (to a certain extent),” warns Travis Usher, a Recruitment Consultant at ZSA. “While there will likely always be a need for tax lawyers, intellectual property is an area that is not as ‘hot’ as it was maybe ten years ago, for example. On the other hand, commercial real-estate in Toronto is booming right now. This is great news for commercial real-estate lawyers. However, no one knows if this trend will continue indefinitely (real-estate is certainly an area subject to bubbles).”
Lana Driscoll, ZSA’s Client Partner, also feels that areas of demand change quickly in today’s market. As such, it is difficult to predict future demanding practice areas. “If you are hunting for a new opportunity, it is best to keep an ear to the ground to be able to capitalize on opportunities and be flexible with your timeline to make a move.”
Advantage of Specialization?
Race suggests that the advantage of specialization depends on the stage in a candidate’s career and the type of law firm that candidate prefers. “Generally, it’s not a bad idea to start with a more general practice, or rotate through different practice groups, to get a sense of what areas of law you really have an affinity for,” advises Race. “If you’re looking at a career path through the larger corporate law firms, they are all about specialization. So by the time you’re getting into the 2nd (and definitely by the 3rd) year of practice, you want to be building up some focus in one practice area. That’s when you will build credibility with both colleagues and clients as a budding ‘expert’, allowing you to take charge of your own career path. Smaller local law firms will generally allow you to undertake a more general or varied legal practice, but you still want to be known for something!”
Usher believes that the advantage of specialization depends on an individual’s long-term goals. “For example, if a young lawyer is certain that he or she wants to build a career in tax law, then it absolutely behooves that individual to focus on this area in law school, articling, and hopefully end up in a great tax group within a firm,” explains Usher.
“As with anything in life, there are trade-offs: such a career path means that certain doors might be closed (in-house roles for tax lawyers, for example, are few and far between). So in making the election to specialize, a degree of certainty is required that is perhaps unrealistic for a junior lawyer,” warns Usher.
“Comparatively, lawyers that maintain more generalist, corporate commercial practices, have more avenues available to them. If one’s goal is to move in-house, this is certainly the way to go: in-house lawyers are usually required to be jacks and jills of all trades. Our clients are often looking for flexible and adaptable candidates with a broad skillset. Even in private practice, more generalist corporate or M&A practices tend to be more portable between firms (conflicts notwithstanding).”
Race also warns those lawyers who consider pursuing in-house opportunities against specializing too early in their career. “If you have an eye on moving in-house at one stage in your career, you have to be aware that many in-house positions require not only a core legal focus, but also a much broader skillset to be able to handle any legal problem that the business might throw at you. Or they expect you to at least know the basic issues involved in other legal matters outside your specialization; know when to refer a matter out to outside counsel; and manage external counsel effectively. So having had exposure early in your career to other practice areas outside your core focus can be extremely useful.”
Race admits that there’s no magic formula for making a more informed decision. He recommends candidates speak to as many people as possible and do their own research and soul-searching to try to get a feeling for what they might have a passion for.
“But also make sure you are conscious that many areas of legal work can be equally fulfilling, so it is at least as important, if not more important, to get a sense of what is a hot or growing practice area in your local market,” says Race. “This may involve going away from the crowd. Being a specialist in a busy area where not many associates are choosing to go will put you in a terrific position to fast-track your career!”