Craig Wilson
Craig Wilson

Articles From the Team

Generalise or specialise? Why focussing too early can be a 'bad' thing

I read an interesting article in The Guardian online recently - discussing the relative merits of specialisation versus generalisation. Adapted from the book ‘Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World’ by David Epstein, the Guardian article starts by comparing the specialist and focussed training of the young Tiger Woods versus the generalist and varied sporting background of the young Roger Federer. The article then moves on to look at the wider sporting world before drawing parallels with learning, development and success in the commercial and professional sectors.

While the article is interesting in and of itself, I felt it was worth exploring the premise of the article in the context of the legal sector. Specifically, is it better for a lawyer to come from a specialist or a broader generalist background if they wish to work in-house?  While it may be a tenuous connection - as we cannot and should not generalise - it’s true that in-house roles are varied, so a broader background should give you an advantage; at least early on.

Summary of the article

The article explains that Tiger Woods is one of the ultimate examples of a specialist sportsperson.  He started playing golf at a very young age, actively encouraged and pushed by his father, and he solely focussed on playing golf throughout his childhood. He put in the hours and dedication, and became one of the world’s best golfers. 

Roger Federer on the other hand took a completely different path. While Roger’s mother was a tennis coach, she never coached him and he was encouraged to play whatever sport  he wanted. This included squash, skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding, basketball, handball, badminton, table tennis and football. It was only when he was nearing his teens that he focussed more on tennis, and despite initially being behind those who specialised early, Federer caught up, overtook them and is arguably the greatest men’s tennis player of all time.

The article covers a number of specialist versus generalist examples, summarising that while ‘the professed necessity of hyper-specialisation forms the core of a vast, successful and sometimes well-meaning marketing machine, in sport and beyond. In reality, the Roger Federer path to sports stardom is far more prevalent than the Tiger Woods path.’

So, how does the specialist versus generalist approach work in business?

The article informs us that ‘one study showed that early-career specialisers earned more than others after college, but that later specialisers made up for the head start by finding work that better suited their skills and personalities.’  In addition, studies also highlighted that technology inventors ‘benefited from proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed.’

On the flip side, research discovered by the author indicated that ‘highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).’  ‘Increasing specialisation has created a “system of parallel trenches” in the quest for innovation. Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even if the solution to their problem happens to reside there.’

‘The research pertains to every stage of life, from the development of children in maths, music and sports, to students fresh out of college trying to find their way, to midcareer professionals in need of a change and would-be retirees looking for a new vocation after moving on from their previous one.’

‘The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivises or even demands hyper-specialisation. While it is true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger’s precocity and clarity of purpose, as complexity increases – as technology spins the world into vaster webs of interconnected systems in which each individual only sees a small part – we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.’

So, how does this relate to the legal sector?

The legal sector in the UK is highly specialised with many different types of lawyer focussed on specific legal issues. Trainee solicitors are typically given the opportunity to sample four to five areas of law during their training contract before selecting a specialism to practice in. They then become a subject matter expert as they progress their career upwards following qualification. While some legal specialisms retain a good level of variety – general commercial, commercial litigation and projects for example – other specialisms are super focussed from the get-go. In addition, when working for larger or more top tier law firms – Magic Circle, Silver Circle, major international or national firms – solicitors are encouraged to hyper-specialise.

The majority of general in-house legal roles involve a diverse range of legal and commercial work, operating closely with stakeholders from across the business.  It’s commonplace for in-house lawyers to deal with commercial, contracts, dispute resolution, corporate governance, M&A, banking, insurance, employment, property, data protection and other legal disciplines, thus requiring a generalist rather than specialist approach and mindset.  

Bearing the above in mind, it would be easy to state that the best in-house lawyers are likely to be those with the most varied (generalist) background and experience.  While it’s helpful to have a broad base of knowledge and experience to build upon, and many in-house solicitors do come from general commercial or (increasingly) commercial litigation backgrounds, the key to success in-house is a willingness to roll your sleeves up, get stuck in and to embrace working on a diverse range of legal and commercial matters.   

Even when in-house roles are aimed at specialists – property development, employment, construction, debt recovery for example – it’s often the case that your role will expand and your range of involvement will move beyond the more restrictive contains of an external legal resource providing a service to their client.

The Guardian article is interesting because it debunks the common held view that long hours of practice and specialism from an early age are how you reach the top of your game.  This was particularly pertinent in the context of early and late developers.  While hyper-specialism can often yield early results in terms of pay and benefits, those who gain and maintain a broader set of skills are more likely to be successful in this increasingly interconnected and technological world. While there will always be a need for hyper-specialised lawyers in private practice, the world of in-house typically requires lawyers with broader experience and the confidence in themselves to proactively find solutions on a diverse range of issues.

You can read the original Guardian article here

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