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Law: an insight job

16 June 14

The Word of Gold: it's fine to be a specialist, but don't ignore the world beyond

by Stephen Gold

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” (Albert Einstein)

The days of the generalist lawyer are well behind us. When I first started down the primrose path of private practice, the profession was full of polymaths who would think nothing of drafting a will, a title and a shareholders’ agreement in the morning, before heading off to court in pursuit of an interdict or a not guilty.

Today, the specialists rule, their fields narrowing by the day, a trend which peaked for me when a magic circle partner told me he would ask his “footpaths partner” to look into a question of disputed access. Richard Susskind predicts a future in which practitioners will be broken down (not just by stress and drink) into around 15 categories: legal project managers, process engineers and the like, many of whom will not be qualified lawyers.

I have no problem with any of this. If the market demands it, the profession must respond. But a relentless focus on specialism has had this troubling effect: not only do we take less interest in the world of colleagues in other disciplines, we often seem uninterested in our clients’ world and, indeed, the world in general, save when it creates fee-earning opportunities.

Recently, I heard of a UK plc’s panel review, where the chief executive attended the final presentations. Each firm was asked to comment on how well it knew the company’s business, and each stressed the limitless height, width and depth of its understanding. “Thank you”, said the CE. “What’s our share price today?” No one knew. Ask yourself honestly, would you have?

At firm events and professional forums, I often touch on the need to be knowledgeable not just about the law, but the wider world, and ask the audience how many of them read regularly, for example, the Financial Times, The Economist, or quality journals other than the legal press. Never have more than 10% put up their hands. In a highly educated audience, this is pretty startling.

I am not in the preaching business. Time is short. Pressures are intense. But to be in the 90% is to put one’s potential and value as a professional in a straitjacket. It is noticeable that when senior corporate and commercial lawyers retire, they often have more difficulty than they expect in finding non-executive directorships or similar positions. Clients think of them as skilled at specialist tasks, but not insightful about business generally, or familiar with their world in particular. There are distinguished exceptions, but if my experience is any guide, generally, the clients are right.

It may be my fault, but I cannot think of a firm where cultivating worldliness – a sophisticated understanding of business, politics, technology and cultural trends – is a CPD objective. It is thought of either as a “nice to have” or not on the radar at all.

You may feel that to bang on about this is idealistic. Getting the day job done is hard enough. But is maintaining an alert curiosity in the forces that shape us not part of the day job, not to mention key to a fulfilling life? Living by the pen is one thing; living in one is another.

Stephen Gold was founder and senior partner of Golds Solicitors, which grew from a sole practice to UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and adviser to firms nationwide. Stephen can be contacted on 07968 484232, at stephen@stephengold.co.uk, or on twitter: @thewordofgold

 

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