…Almost from the moment a lawyer hatches from the chrysalis of their training contract they will specialise. A butterfly is born, but one that feeds on a very narrow diet. I have often wondered if this is a burden or a benefit…

I suppose on the one hand it means that the “Big Law” law firms can claim to bring specialist depth in a variety of subject disciplines, presumably charge premium fees for their expertise and rock-up to meetings with a small tribe of eager fee earners. And, if I am generous, the advantage to the client is that they may be able to buy deep insight that potentially affords competitive advantage…

But there are downsides too…labelled and routed (as well as rooted) lawyers are pushed towards knowing more and more about an area that will have less and less relevance to an ever increasing number of potential contacts and clients.

This isn’t “strategic”; it is instead a gamble on matching a market with a career…More concerning still is that I do not believe for a moment this is what the vast majority of corporate clients actually want.

Most clients care less that their lawyer is steeped in specialty, dripping with technical insight; but they do care about good judgement and wisdom and that their lawyer has the character and personality to encourage them to invest their faith and trust in the outcomes of their lawyer’s work. If this sounds a bit “airy-fairy”, let me put it this way: Clients want lawyers who make good decisions based on the right amount of information. A decision with no facts is a guess. A decision with all facts will be too late. Judgement is deciding how many facts are needed. Wisdom is getting it right.

I am not suggesting that when some esoteric tax point is in issue or when a “bet the company” takeover is being planned that the true rocket scientists of the profession are not needed or value for money – whatever they cost. I am certain however that for maybe 75% of the legal work that is done on behalf of corporate clients, specialism is more hindrance than help. It results in tactical advice not strategic advice; it creates duplication and slows things down. It is designed to improve time sheets, not to get to a desired outcome in a commercial and timely way.

Some of the best lawyers I know would proclaim that they know precious little law. Working with, for example, top General Counsel, one can see how they have moved through specialism to a more important place. They understand risk, understand (more importantly) their business’s tolerance to risk; they apply their analytical skills, relationship development skills, their creative problem solving skills, their influencing skills and their communication skills…In doing so they are seen as a contributor, a player, a voice at the table that should be heard.

All lawyers should aspire for their guidance to be perceived in this way and all lawyers should see that the majority of their corporate clients want an experience like this too. This isn’t rocket science, but it is very clever.

Please do not misunderstand me. This is not a charter for the slap-dash and the partially ignorant. I am certain of course that lawyers must be trained to know and apply the law; and I do not belittle the importance of rigour and discipline in this pursuit. I am really making a plea for balance.

It is the case, for example, that with genuinely excellent on-line resources, with automation and the ever increasing sophistication of systems and processes, pure legal expertise has become more accessible and for a much lower cost than ever before. This appears to be a trend that will only continue. In effect it results in a levelling of the playing field so that across a range of lawyers and law firms one cannot easily distinguish between them on legal expertise alone.

If therefore we cannot easily choose between one lawyer and another based on their legal know-how, clients are bound to make distinctions/choices based on other criteria. The sort of criteria I’mention above when referring to the General Counsel skills set. Increasingly therefore we can also anticipate that knowing the law will be seen as little more than “hygiene” factor, while the application of know-how will be the value add.

Put simply the positive perception of value by clients is less and less influenced by what lawyers know and more and more influenced by how lawyers use know-how to make a difference to the clients they serve.

Perhaps even more importantly clients are realising that legal advice should not just provide a useable solution (lovely though that would be!), but that it should be capable resulting in competitive advantage. This can only happen however when there is a deep understanding of the client’s interests in a business, risk and socio-economic context. In effect legal advice is becoming a strategic indicator of value.

For me this is the difference between information and wisdom. Information will continue to be reduced in price to the point when it may even be given away free; wisdom however will carry a high margin and rightly so.

The sooner we therefore start to systematically, thoughtfully and determinedly train our lawyers in business skills, soft skills and in developing leadership credentials, the better it will be for them and for their clients.