Que Sera, Sera? The Future of Specialization in Large Law Firms

Tuesday, January 1st, 2002 at 12:00 am by Timothy Hia
Timothy Hia, Que Sera, Sera? The Future of Specialization in Large Law Firms, 2002 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 541

Legal practice in the twenty-first century presents a very different picture from the genteel, almost Victorian stereotype of the stolid, plodding country practitioner. Country practitioners continue to proliferate, of course, and it is only right at the beginning of this discussion to raise the figurative glass to them and to wish them well in their endeavors–but the well-founded belief in law schools and firms alike is that legal practice today, at least at its commercial cutting edge, is more of a business than a profession. Nowhere is this more concretely confirmed than within the large law firm, where the traditional ideas of personalized client service and long-term relationships are increasingly giving way to a project-based approach to client servicing, in which the individual lawyer is, if not quite a fungible good, at least a relatively small fish in a frighteningly large shoal.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that many lawyers have attempted to specialize in various fields of work in order to maintain their competitive edge. As will be seen, it is not just the desire for professional satisfaction that causes the young lawyer to choose a specialty; specialization today is quite possibly the only avenue of survival for the large-firm lawyer. Some scholars have cogently argued that the very nature of large firms militates against generalist lawyers, since it is only through judicious use of associates in specific departments that the large firm can survive.

Of course, specialization itself is not a recent phenomenon, even among the large firms. A 1960’s survey of large firms in New York revealed that all the firms investigated maintained departmental structures, which generally included a corporate department, a tax section, and depending on the demands of clients, divisions specializing in anything from banking and litigation to aviation and theatrical law. Even in the 1930’s, most firms embraced ‘narrow‘ specialties of patent law and admiralty law that were carved off from the more popular (and lucrative) banking or railroad practices.

That said, however, there is no question that specialization is becoming more and more important to the workings of the large firm. Today junior lawyers are asked to choose their fields of practice earlier in their careers, while the specialties available to the young associates are more narrowly-focused than ever before. In many firms, the broad groupings of ‘corporate‘ or ‘litigation‘ have slowly given way to sub-categories such as ‘ERISA‘ or ‘White-Collar Crime,‘ ‘Structured Finance‘ or ‘Federal Taxation.‘ Clearly then, the specialist plays an ever more critical part in the twenty-first century legal landscape.

What does all of this herald for the large law firm? That is the issue that this Note will attempt to address, focusing particularly on evaluating the effects of the growing trend of lawyer specialization on the market for legal services. I posit that specialization is here to stay, and that the transactional (rather than relational) focus of the modern legal industry, combined with the push towards competitiveness and economic efficiency, will force lawyers to seek out increasingly narrow areas in which to specialize. Writ large, the interaction between competitiveness and specialization will create a cycle that pushes the large law firm towards a focus on its own specialties–and in so doing, forces firms to look further and further afield for their clients, spurring the trend of globalization that the legal market has already begun to experience.

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