On Becoming an Expert, in What?

J.B. Ruhl
Which new topic do you focus on now that you are looking to build expertise in real work?

Which new topic do you focus on now that you are looking to build expertise in real work?

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The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

In my Law Practice 2050 class here at Vanderbilt, when I ask a guest speaker what advice they have for law students about entering the profession, invariably the answer includes something like “become an expert in something.” Especially given what the profession is going through these days, they say, law firms want experts, clients want experts, law schools want experts, everybody wants experts.

Now, there are all sorts of books and blogs about how to become an expert, the most well-known being a theory Malcolm Gladwell popularized in Outliers–that 10,000 hours of practice can turn anyone into an expert (researchers say, though, that this probably isn’t true). But even if you know how to become an expert and have 10,000 hours to throw at it (which you will in BigLaw, to be sure), the real question for young lawyers is the “in something”—in what kind of legal work should you strive to become an expert? I have no pat answer to that, but offer the following four strategies that worked for me and for many attorneys I know.

Find a New Law

As a summer associate way back in 1981, in what must have been a “make work” assignment, a partner tossed me the text and thin legislative history of a brand new federal law now known as Superfund. He asked me to write a memo explaining it and predicting its impacts. I dug in and considered all possibilities. Wow! As any environmental law practitioner knows, that was a blockbuster. When I showed up as an associate the next fall, I was a magnet for questions about the new law’s impact and implementation. The point is that any new major law or agency rule puts every lawyer on an almost even playing field. True, experienced practitioners in the new law’s larger space may have a leg up on the context, but major legal changes open the door to lawyers, junior and senior alike, to build new expertise.

Find a New Trend

An attorney friend of mine in Nashville, a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot, read an article a decade ago about using drones to deliver packages. That seemed to him problematic at best, so he decided to consider it from a law and policy angle. Back then, when he said he was developing a “drone law” practice, people looked puzzled. Over time though, he became in high demand with a broad range of industries as they began to experiment with drones in their business model and needed advice. If only one name popped up when they Googled “drone lawyer,” that’s who they called. There are new trends coming along all the time. Jump on one!

Find Something Nobody Else Wants to Do

Who wants to practice discovery dispute litigation, or public freedom of information disclosure litigation? Raise your hands. I thought so. But while these and similar practice areas are generally not high on the new lawyer “what I want to do” list, the reality is that they are complex and integral to a firm’s or a client’s legal risk profile. A former student of mine, for example, got “stuck” in discovery dispute litigation as a new attorney with his firm, but years later, with the rise of ediscovery, runaway discovery costs, and complex litigation, he is highly valued by his firm and its clients.

Be at the Right Place at the Right Time, and Say Yes

One day while I was working dutifully at my desk, the managing partner of our office informed me that we were hosting a free luncheon for clients and that I would talk about “something that’s going to happen soon that will make them want to call us.” I had worked on a couple of matters involving the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—I was certainly no expert at the time—and read a newspaper article about a bird species in the area that had been added to the list of protected species. I gave a short presentation about that at the luncheon and immediately after lunch a woman leaped from the crowd to ask if I could attend a meeting later that day. I said yes. They had a compliance problem, and I helped them through it. That led to more ESA work for that client, and others. For the next four years, half of my time was devoted to ESA compliance work.

After the ordeal of law school, most young lawyers know how to ramp up on a new topic. The question is: which new topic do you focus on now that you are looking to build expertise in real work? Find one in a new law, a new trend, the less glamorous work, or at a chance encounter. Make sure it interests you. Then run with it!

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J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the director of the Program on Law and Innovation and the codirector of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program at Vanderbilt Law School.