When should I specialise?
The challenge for any lawyer, accountant or consultant in practice is when to specialise. (Not if they need to!) Do it too soon and you don’t get the broad base of technical and commercial skills you need. Do it too late and you will struggle to build your own practice. The sweet spot timing will be different for each of us, but here are some points to consider.
Having a broad base of technical skills is good – up to a point
At the start of your career, your success as a professional, whether accountant, lawyer or consultant, comes from being able to pick up a wide range of jobs. However, your success as a senior professional comes from your expertise, i.e. being known for a particular specialist skill set. When I talk about a specialist skill set, I mean being more than just ‘an employment lawyer’ or a ‘VAT specialist’. I am meaning choosing to go a level deeper than that. For example:
- Employment lawyer specialising in the banking sector
- VAT expert specialising in retail and e-commerce companies
Do I really need to commit to a niche?
I really recommend you commit at least part way. As with most things, it is about balance. Unless you qualified into or work within a specific sector team, a niche needs to be built gradually. Over time your ‘growing interest’ will become a ‘growing specialisation’, which will then become a ‘specialism in’, and then finally become ‘this is what I specialise in’. Some professionals, particularly those in small firms, may never get to the last stage – it may be enough to be a general practitioner with specialisms. It is all about what is right for you and your practice.
By becoming a specialist for a sector (or two) you will be more in demand than a colleague who decides to stay a generalist. Strange, but true. You may wonder why? Basically, by being a specialist, it’s more likely that your name comes to mind first when the assignment leader or resourcing manager decides who to put on the job. You’ll still get opportunities outside of your sector specialism, but there you will be competing on a level playing field with the rest of your colleagues. A specialism gives you a head start.
Look at the people in your firm who are progressing their careers quickly, I bet they are known for certain skills.
So when is it the right time to start specialising?
As soon as you are qualified, you should start to think about what is going to be your ‘thing’. Whilst you don’t need to make the transition instantly, post-qualification is the time to be researching and identifying who or what makes you tick. When your charge-out rate starts to increase, you and your firm need to be able to justify this increase to clients. Being known as ‘the specialist’ or ‘the go-to-expert’ helps you to do this.
Building your practice
When your career reaches the point you want to start to build your own practice – when you are a senior associate, senior manager or director – you need to build a strong personal brand. After all, your brand needs to be strong enough for people to send you work rather than send it to someone more senior.
This means that when you get to the senior levels, you should have started the journey into a niche. After all, it is much easier to win business as a senior associate or senior manager if you are already known as being really good in a particular sector.
How much you choose to specialise and focus on a niche or two is really up to you. However, the sooner your name becomes associated with a specialism, the easier it will become to build your own practice.