I am on record many, many times saying you need to be niche to build up your own practice and win your own clients. But how niche or specialist do you really need to be? Do you need to be THE expert? In this blog post I answer the question, ‘how specialist do I really need to be?’ And explain that you may still be able to be a generalist to progress your career to partner.

Why do clients want to work with an expert?

Imagine a member of your family was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Who would you want to operate on them, the top brain surgeon in the country or a general surgeon who was going to ‘have a go at it’. Of course, you’d want to the best brain surgeon your money could buy. (For those of you reading this article who are based in the UK, let’s just forget about the politics of the NHS). Now your potential clients may not be needing a brain surgeon but it’s rare that the work they need doing doesn’t carry a level of risk either to their personal reputation, their wealth, their time or their business’s health going forward. It really only is the very small and very mundane matters that clients are happy for anyone to work on. The FT effective client advisor relationships report in 2012 identified that 67% of clients wanted their professional advisor to have a good and deep understanding of the world that they operated in.

If clients really do want to work with an expert, how ‘expert’ do I need to be?

If you have relatively little control over the work you’ve been given, it can be very daunting to be told that to progress your career you need to be an expert. However, you don’t suddenly go from being a generalist to an expert overnight. It takes time. Typically the path to becoming an expert tends to go like this:
Generalist with a growing interest in…
Generalist with specialism in….
Specialist in….
Known expert in….
The Go-To Expert for ….
Let’s take a small high street law practice. Their marketplace will be catering to individual legal needs such as family law and conveyancing as well as small business needs such as commercial property, contracts, buying and selling a business. There is unlikely to be enough of a marketplace locally to solely feed a real niche specialist such as a residential property litigator. In this scenario being a commercial property lawyer with specialisms in…. is as far as you probably need to go. However, go to the opposite end of the scale, I.e. A London city law firm, and being a commercial property lawyer with specialisms in… Is probably not going to be enough of a specialism to progress your career to partner.

Can I still be a generalist and progress my career to partner?

The answer is yes, if you are in a small local practice which generates the vast majority of its business locally. However, even for this scenario you really need to be a ‘generalist with specialisms in…’ If you are going to stand out from your peers and competitors then you really need to be known for something.

But as a litigator I have to take what I am given or risk having no work

It’s not just litigators in this position. It’s also professionals who sell ‘very distressed purchases’ such as insolvency practitioners. In this scenario, my advice is no different. You need a level of specialisation in order to stand out from your peers and competitors. However, given the reality of life for a litigator or insolvency practitioner, you will normally take what you are given or what falls into your lap. You will probably remain far more of a generalist than your non-contentious peers; until you get very, very senior it is unlikely that you will have enough work to solely build up a practice based around being a ‘known expert in…’

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