As lawyers, we pride ourselves on being experts in our practice area, and often on having great depth of expertise built up over many years. As trainees we spend hours discussing and agonising over which area in which to qualify, thereby setting us on a life-long course towards expertise. But does this make for better lawyers? Is it better to be a generalist rather than a specialist?
David Epstein, the author of "Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World", offers an alternative to the well-known '10,000 hours of practice' theory that Matthew Syed, and Malcolm Gladwell, wrote about several years ago. Epstein uses the (admittedly exceptional) examples of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The former was swinging golf clubs as an infant, winning tournaments at two and was laser-guided for success by his father. Federer, on the other hand, played many sports as a child and apparently drifted towards tennis as a teenager. These headline-grabbing examples do not decide the question one way or another. However, analysis of a wider pool of subjects suggests that a majority of elite sportspeople materially benefitted from participating in a range of different sports when they were younger.
Epstein cites more significant examples of (over)specialisation in medicine, where doctors and surgeons become too familiar with certain procedures and so deploy them in cases where they may in fact not be the most appropriate. He gives the example of stents being inserted routinely when research suggests they can often be harmful. Would similar issues arise in the law? No two matters, clients or instructions are the same and lawyers are fixed with a limited set of experiences. If those experiences are narrow in focus, does that lead to better or worse advice? Whilst expertise is essential, it is probably true that a broader base of experience – in legal terms and life generally – will help to achieve better outcomes. Perhaps we shouldn't hasten to specialise too early. Let's hope that David Epstein broadens his focus to include a review of performance in the legal sector.