Once upon a time, in the days before third-down running backs, middle relievers, and three-point specialists, being a “generalist”—one equally skilled at playing multiple positions when the need arose—was a celebrated and rare talent. So-called “five tool” baseball players like Ken Griffey Jr. and “two way” football players in the mold of Jim Thorpe were legendary. Even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, was as renowned for his suffocating defense as he was his prolific scoring.
But with increased complexity in play-calling coaches’ chess master–type movements and countermovements, “specialists” emerged in every sport: pitchers who built reputations striking out left-handed batters during night games; defensive ends who perfected the strip-fumble from the right side of the line; defensive-minded centers adept at collecting offensive rebounds (but not much else).
A similar (d)evolution has occurred in the legal ranks. The lawyer who litigates plaintiffs’ and defendants’ cases, with a little family, criminal, transactional, corporate, and real estate work, is a rare, dying breed. Clearly, there are a number of advantages to law firms and, in turn, the services available to clients. The exacting nuances of specialty courts—tax, bankruptcy, and worker’s compensation, for example—demand a practitioner with more than a casual understanding of the subject matter.
In addition, the advent of bar certification in narrower sub-areas has encouraged specialization as a source of pride and additional marketing cues. Finally, the diversity of our industry has allowed persons of all backgrounds to leverage their extra-legal talents to bear (MD-JDs and JD-MBAs, for example), and firms have found ways to accommodate lawyers who are willing to eschew the corner-office path in favor of greater work-life balance and flexibility.
No matter how naturally Darwinian the process is, we have lost much as our profession has become increasingly specialized and career paths more disparate. Disappearing is the experiential wisdom selflessly supplied by the sage practitioner who can craft a commercial dispute clause because she has litigated both good and bad contracts or the wily legal veteran who knows the key to helping a client with debt protection vehicles because he has spent a career picking those very locks in collections cases. The loss of these precious natural resources to the law leaves not only a substantive vacuum but a practical one as well. We still need the older lawyer at the end of the hall who has a story (often mostly true) about a case eerily similar to yours; the venerable war horse who knew the judges before they were judges (or even lawyers); the wise schoolteacher who curses at her computer sometimes and still uses a Dictaphone but graciously offers advice with patience and little judgment. They are the (sometimes reluctant) mentors of our profession.
The dubious moniker of “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” does not apply to the generalist. These are the lawyers who remember what it’s like to be wrong, doubted, and scared—and who move forward anyway. They are the risk takers, the “shingle hangers” who accepted every case they could, the small company general counsel who has developed a necessary 360-degree view of the legal landscape. Lawyers who are the late night and weekend students of the unfamiliar area of law and who become competent by will and work. They are champions of persons and causes, not discrete practice areas. To put it plainly, they are the heroes and heroines of the law.
Fred Gray was a generalist—a young black landlord-tenant lawyer in Alabama who defended Rosa Parks, not because he was an expert on the Constitution, but because he was empowered by his education and licensure to right a wrong. That’s the epitome of a “generalist.” We need more, not fewer, of these lawyers.