Specialization: The Key to Job Security?
Most lawyers and many paralegals say that they specialize in a particular area of the law. The term, however, is somewhat misleading. A legal specialty is not the same as a medical specialty. A doctor who specializes in cardiac surgery practices only in that area of medicine. A lawyer who “specializes” may actually practice law in several different areas of the law. In fact, it is not uncommon for a legal professional to list two or three specialties.
The situation is similar for paralegals. In its 2002 National Utilization and Compensation Report, the National Association of Legal Assistants reported that the average paralegal respondent claimed to practice in three specialty areas of the law. In all, thirty-six specialty areas of practice were identified.
The same survey sought to determine whether the claimed areas of “specialty” really demanded the majority of a paralegal's time. The report found that significant number of respondents spent less than 20 percent of their time performing tasks in the area of specialization. The only specialty area where respondents reported devoting 80 percent or more of their time to assigned tasks was civil litigation.
Together, these findings suggest that true specialization is extremely rare. A legal professional may concentrate on a certain area of the law, but clients have many kinds of legal problems. The legal professional must be competent and comfortable in several areas of the law. The selection of a specialty does not mean that other areas of the law can be ignored.
The term specialty is a misnomer when applied to the legal field. Legal professionals may concentrate their practice in one particular area, but they are also free to branch out into other areas of the law. A legal specialty is simply any area of the law that interests the practitioner and comprises a significant portion of the practice.
The good news is that this form of diversified specialization offers significant advantages. Legal work is often cyclical — the demand for legal services in a specific area of the law fluctuates. A paralegal who is competent and comfortable in several areas of the law is valuable in each of these areas. This allows the law firm to continue functioning smoothly and efficiently. If a job change is necessary, the diversified paralegal has more to offer a new employer.