Overspecialization isn’t special

Written by Erik M. Jensen, David L. Brennan Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

I keep hearing people talk about how, in our increasingly specialized world, it’s necessary for students to specialize in law school.  If you want to be a tax lawyer, take nothing but tax courses (or get as close to that goal as your school’s tax curriculum permits).  If intellectual property is your thing, immerse yourself in the IP courses, and forget about the other stuff.

I disagree.  I’m a skeptic about specialization, or at least about over-specialization.  Of course, if you’re going to be a tax lawyer (I’m going to use tax law as my primary example because it’s what I know best) you want to study corporate and partnership taxation in law school.  You’re going to have a lot of difficulty on the job if you have to pick up the basics from scratch.  (I’m sorry, Mr. Senior Partner, but, before I can research your questions, you’ll have to give me a few days to read the Nutshell.)  But I’m also sure that you should not limit yourself to tax courses.

In my time as a real tax lawyer several decades ago (1980-83), the powers-that-be in my firm’s tax group saw tax lawyers as indispensable generalists.  If, in reviewing documents for a transaction, we tax associates found a problem that wasn’t tax related, we were expected to be able to fix it, or at least to make sure it was fixed, not to avert our gaze and say, not my problem.

Yes, there was hubris involved in seeing tax lawyers as gods, but thinking of ourselves as generalists wasn’t senseless.  The best tax lawyer is someone who understands a great deal more than just tax law; a good tax lawyer is a good lawyer.

And the same point can be made about lawyers in just about every field; certainly it applies to every big firm lawyer.  If you’re going to be a corporate lawyer, say, you’d better know a lot more than just business associations and securities law.  (For one obvious example, a corporate lawyer who knows nothing about corporate taxation is not a good corporate lawyer.)  I can’t say it too often:  A good lawyer is a good lawyer.

At a minimum, you need to know enough to realize when you don’t know enough.  You can’t go asking for help from a lawyer in another field if you don’t realize that there’s an issue to begin with.  You’re not going to spot a securities law problem, for example, if you know nothing about securities law.  If everyone is a single-minded specialist, a lot of problems needing attention will fall through the cracks—to the ultimate benefit of no one except the lawyers specializing in legal malpractice.

So I recommend that students take a wide variety of courses in law school, with one caveat.  Thirty years ago I would have said that it’s hard to imagine a law school course that wouldn’t be professionally beneficial to a future lawyer.  I’m not sure that’s true anymore.  With the proliferation of Law and the Dog courses, it’s possible to get through law school these days taking only courses that have almost nothing to do with the practice of law.  (In fact, it’s possible to take a lot of courses that have nothing to do with anything.)

I’m therefore not suggesting that you make your course selections by throwing darts.  But do broaden your horizons.  Tax lawyers to be, take an IP course or two.  (And vice-versa.)  Take at least one course from each of the superstars on your law faculty, just to be exposed to great minds thinking great thoughts, even if you expect never to make professional use of the subject matter.  (I took a labor law course in law school for that reason—actually taught by a contracts scholar who was himself exploring labor law for the first time—and have never regretted doing so.  It was a great experience.)  And go ahead and take Law and the Dog, as long as you don’t overdo it.  (But do skip both Advanced Law and the Dog and the Law and the Dog Research Seminar.)

A final set of points:  Some schools have concentrations that aren’t especially concentrated.  At the school where I teach, for example, one can concentrate in a number of areas by taking courses that add up to about one semester’s worth of work (that is, one-sixth of the number of credits required for graduation).  Moreover, some of the courses that count towards concentrations are ones that just about everyone should take anyway.  I don’t consider participating in a concentration of that sort to be overspecialization. (In fact, I’m not sure it’s really specialization at all.)  If your school has such a program in an area you’re interested in, go ahead and do it, especially when you have reason to think the credential will help in the job search.

But be careful.  One question to ponder is whether being characterized as a concentator might come back to bite you in the hindquarters.  What if, down the road, you decide you want to do something completely different?  Will a concentration in business organizations, especially if it shows up forever on your transcript, hurt you if you look for a job chasing ambulances? I’m not sure, but it might.