Community Perspectives: Is it Better to Specialize or to be an In-house Generalist?

As in-house legal professionals weigh their career options, one common question is whether to choose a specific area of specialization or to remain a generalist.
Nov 06, 2020

As in-house legal professionals weigh their career options, one common question is whether to choose a specific area of specialization or to remain a generalist.

A legal professional in the In-House Fishbowl asked:

"Is it better to be in a generalist in-house role or a specialized role? [...] What are the pros and cons of each of these types of roles?"

This question resonated with the group and several members shared their perspective.

One in-house professional responded:

  • Really depends on what you are looking for. Also how comfortable you are with pushing back and not always knowing the answer.
  • As a generalist you need to be great at issue spotting even in areas you aren’t familiar. Then you need to be able to say to the business I need you to hold while I investigate further. Also get comfortable with absorbing more risk.
  • As a specialized attorney you get to be really good at your niche but there’s limited room for growth. You’ll learn one area of the business really well and become a trusted adviser and partner in my experience.

Another member chimed in along similar lines:

  • I’ve got a specialist role. I’m never going to be GC. That role will likely be filled by those generalists who not only have a full flavor of the business, but are also good managers and politically savvy.
  • While I still need to understand my organization thoroughly to do my job, I still tend to focus more on my core work than anything else.
  • But there is upside - I do what I’m good at, I do what gives my organization the most value that I can give them, and because the niche I fill is not easy to fill in-house, I feel very secure about my position, both in terms of job security during tumultuous times and in terms of perceived value to the organization.

A third member shared this experience in response:

  • I was very similarly a specialist in-house and liked it a lot. My company was based entirely around my specialty so our entire legal team had a background in that specialty, although we handled one off projects here and there outside the specialty, and our GC also did broader work.
  • I got laid off (since found a new position) so do want to caution you on that front, but personally I still wouldn’t go the generalist route, I’ve invested too much time and energy at this point to give up my specialty (plus I really like it).

A senior counsel noted:

  • At my first in house job straight out of law school I was in more of a generalist role, with a focus on contracts but with lots of other responsibilities as well.
  • After that, I went to a larger company in a more specialized role (contracts only). I got bored very quickly with that and after a year went to a smaller company in a generalist role again.
  • Personally I love having more impact on the overall business and working on interesting issues. I think it is better as well if you want to be a GC one day. In the end, I think it comes down to personal preference.

Amongst the other perspectives shared, this one by a Chief Legal Officer also stood out in particular:

  • Different perspective: I believe deep subject matter expertise makes you incredibly valuable and differentiates you from the other generalists that I have on my team.
  • Nobody on my team at AGC level is a “generalist”. My AGCs have deep subject expertise, coupled with the ability to connect dots and manage areas in which they are not expert. They are “player coaches”.
  • What will really differentiate you is whether you can pivot (sorry... overused word these days) from your specialization to a high level “connect the dots” strategy/risk analysis that covers more than your area of expertise; this does not necessarily come from acting as a legal generalist but it does require a deep understanding of every area of your business and the way your business makes money.
  • You can do this by managing a function in which you are not expert... not by attempting to perform legal analysis in a function in which you are not expert.
  • My role by definition makes me a generalist; but I didn’t start that way and I now consider myself a deep expert in a number of areas... though I know what I don’t know - for reference- I’m a F500 CLO with a team of 100+.
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