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By Irwin R. Kramer, Esq.

Q: Jack Has a General Practice. Without Expertise, He’ll Take What He’ll Please, on Everything Under the Sun. Should Jack Forgo Fees, Adopt Specialties, or Limit His Focus to One?

A: In Lincoln’s day, just about everyone was a Jack-of-All-Trades.

Riding the circuit from one courthouse to the next, the finest antebellum barristers handled everything from contracts to criminal defense with equal aplomb. Their saddlebags overflowed with a variety of civil and criminal cases, together with wills, promissory notes and other instruments which they scribbled out by hand during breaks in the action.

Times have certainly changed. The industrial and digital revolutions were not fought on horseback. Machines move much faster. In 150 years, we have experienced greater technological “progress” than at any point in the history of mankind. The speed and complexity of business have increased exponentially—and so have our legal problems.

Equestrian skills won’t help us navigate a body of law that would overwhelm any individual lawyer. Law firms seeking to provide a “full service” to their clients have grown to the size of the corporations they serve—each with specialized departments devoted to the maze of regulatory issues they face every day.

The Jack-of-All-Trades has given way to “specialists” who spend their careers on thinner slices of a much more intricate world.

In an increasingly complex field, should Jack shutter his shingle and settle on a single specialty?

For many, this seems like a safer bet. Oddsmakers may say that, if Jack narrows his niche, he’ll be more likely to master it and less likely to err.

But they don’t know Jack.

Jack thrives on variety, hates monotony, and loves the challenge of novel cases. He also loves his clients. While specialists may master discrete legal issues, no one knows his clients better than he does. Over the years, they have come to depend upon Jack’s wise counsel and holistic approach to their individual needs.

Jack cares as much for those he serves as he does for the law itself. To feel fulfilled, this lawyer must be able to grow within his profession without losing his personal touch. If the possibility of error leads him to relinquish old relationships and avoid new challenges, Jack runs an even greater risk—that he will lose his enthusiasm for the law, burn out on monotonous matters, and let everything slip.

Jack need not master all trades to represent his clients competently. Commenting on the competence rule, the ABA believes that, “[i]n many instances, the required proficiency is that of a general practitioner.” Rule 1.1 comment [1]. But to achieve proficiency in unfamiliar areas, Jack must be willing to work for it.

In some cases, Jack may need to devour a new treatise or attend seminars to get up to speed. In others, he may collaborate with more experienced practitioners to serve his clients well. This will let him gain experience without compromising the quality of representation.

Though Jack should continue to explore diverse areas, lawyers who tackle all trades may need to find new ones themselves. Lest we risk our law licenses on unfamiliar cases, we’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em and when to walk away.

Rather than gamble with the lives of his clients, Jack must know his limitations, set reasonable boundaries, and just say “no” to cases which exceed them. Like the family doctor, Jack can then refer his clients to specialists while continuing to monitor their legal health.

If he plays his cards right, Jack’s efforts will pay off in a rewarding career, many grateful clients, and a nice mix of intellectually-stimulating matters. He may even master a few before the dealin’s done.

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Irwin R. Kramer defends his fellow attorneys in disciplinary proceedings and in legal malpractice actions. Combined with significant trial and appellate experience in state and federal courts, his law firm management experience gives him an appreciation for the pressures of law practice and the ethical issues confronting attorneys on a daily basis. This article originally appeared on Mr. Kramer’s blog, The Lawyer’s Lawyer, at https://attorneygrievances.com. Used with permission.