Should You Specialize? (90 Day Known Expert Day 2)

After I wrote Lawyer Forward—a book that argues explicitly for more specialization and collaboration—I got a fair bit of pushback.

“I don’t want to specialize. I’ll get so bored.”

Or, “I can’t specialize where I live. I have to take whatever comes in the door.”

I get it. Having practiced in a rural area, I’ve been there. But specializing is necessary for becoming elite, and expertise is a certain kind of specializing. To gain the benefits of expertise, you’ll have to focus.

The question is when. Are you ready to specialize?

An Argument for Generalists?

In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein seems to say that generalism is good.

He makes a contrast between Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. Tiger famously focused early. He was on TV shows as a 4-year-old boy, hitting golf balls with amazing distance and accuracy.

(I used the term “shooting golf” in the podcast—is that a thing people say??)

Federer, in contrast, played several sports as a kid. It was only later in life that he specialized. So who did it right?

Well, despite the catchy subtitle of Range, Epstein didn’t argue for generalism. What he argued for was foraging before focusing.

So, dear parents, don’t be crazy. Let your kids play. Simple enough. The issue comes when people (including whatever publisher came up with that subtitle) apply that advice to long-term career planning. In a modern economy, forever generalizing is disastrous.

Specializing is Human

All human progress has come from specialization and collaboration.

That’s Yuval Noah Harari’s very direct conclusion in his book Sapiens. Humans are individually quite stupid and incapable, actually. As survivalists go, our bodies aren’t well-adapted and our brains weren’t designed for the vast complexity around us. We can handle it because we work together.

When you specialize in your firm, you promote deeper understanding of a narrow topic. Yes, that can be a problem if your depth stands on its own. You can end up in a bubble and turn your relatively small understanding of the complex world into false ideas. But that’s not an argument against specialization, it’s an argument for collaboration.

The more specialized you become, the more you need to work with others. It sounds less efficient than doing it all yourself, but that couldn’t be more wrong.

A Lesson from the Humble Toaster

One of my favorite stories of the efficiencies of collaboration came from designer Thomas Thwaites. You should watch his quick TED talk, but I’ll give you the short version.

Thwaites decided to build an artisan toaster. He went to the store to find a break down the cheapest toaster. He’d identify the parts and then go make and assemble them himself.

The story’s amusing, but the take-home was this: after over a year and nearly $2,300, Thwaites plugged in the toaster and it melted. It didn’t even work. (I’m told this is a good analogy for big firm work.)

In the name of individualism, Thwaites actually created a worse product. I’ve argued that we do the same in law practice. Escaping that grind will mean more specialization combined with more collaboration.

In order to become a known expert, you’ll have to focus on those two ideas.

Forage, but Focus

I’m not arguing that you should lock yourself in an idea box. In fact, the best ideas often come from combining seemingly unrelated good ideas. But I am saying that your company needs focus.

As we continue this series, we’ll talk about how you define your focus and how you connect it to others so you can produce better for clients.

If you need help doing that work developing and demonstrating expertise, don’t forget to reach out to the Lawyer Forward Media team.

We’ll chat more tomorrow.

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