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With more legal ‘mysteries’ to solve, we need more generalist lawyers

Last week, I asked the general counsel of one of our major corporate clients what she valued from a law firm, writes CIE Legal’s Peter George.

user iconPeter George 13 November 2018 Corporate Counsel
Scales of Justice
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“To be frank,” she said. “I need someone with a legal brain and commercial acumen who is able to find a solution. What I don’t want is to be passed from department to department, with specialists giving me much more than I need when all I want is a commercial view”.

A couple of days after, I was chatting with Katherine Thomas, a consultant to our firm who previously led one of the most successful freelance lawyer businesses in the UK.

As we spoke, she told me stories of lawyers at top-rated firms looking to go freelance who found that their skills were too specialist and narrow to be of value to in-house counsel as a freelancer. Only those who were willing to invest in broadening their skills were able to make the change.


“Brilliant as they may have been” she said, “we just couldn’t place a specialist in private equity investments in the health care sector, for example. Our clients wanted a broader skills-set. Most of the time, we found that these lawyers’ specialist skills only held premium value inside the rarefied atmosphere of the large international law firm.”

These two conversations got me thinking: does the kind of deep specialism that has developed with the rise of international legal practices best serve us and our clients?

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay that unintentionally defined the generalist/specialist delineation.

“The Fox and the Hedgehog” describes two very different ways of looking at the world.

Based on a quote from Archilochus, an ancient Greek poet – “a fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one important thing” – Berlin’s essay outlines the characteristics of two types of thinkers. Foxes are generalists – they understand a little about many things – while hedgehogs are specialists, with a deep knowledge of one thing. These labels of the fox and the hedgehog have been used ever since to define two different forms of thinking and, by some, to advocate for one over the other.

Berlin may not have promoted one way of thinking above the other, but it seems that society has done that since he wrote his essay.

There’s no doubt that specialists are more valued at the moment. The growth in information, our escalating ability to gain knowledge and the attendant increase in depth of knowledge, coupled with increasing complexity in all walks of life, has promoted the ‘specialist’. After all, faced with more information and more complex information, who wouldn’t naturally turn to a specialist to decipher it?

Well, that depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. In a brief and fascinating TedX talk, the academic and investor Vikram Mansharamani outlines the different uses for fox-like and hedgehog-like thinking.

“This is not about which approach is better” he says, “but which is better when”.

Hedgehog-thinking, he says, applies to ‘puzzles’: clearly defined problems that have a solution that just needs to be found. In this scenario, data acquisition is key and solutions are found by ‘generating dots’ – by generating information. In contrast, fox-thinking applies to ‘mysteries’: poorly defined, ambiguous problems that require scenario and probability thinking to resolve.

In these situations, foxes ‘join the dots’ and make connections between disparate pieces of information to arrive at a way forward. “Here”, he says, “the ability to see across areas of specialisation allows the fox to navigate uncertainty with greater success”.

There’s no doubt that today’s problems are more complex and multidimensional than they have ever been. For organisations, increasing regulation, globalisation and democratisation have made every decision the product of a complex mosaic of contesting factors – ‘mysteries’, rather than ‘puzzles’. As a result, it’s no longer enough for lawyers to be specialist hedgehogs, advising on a single area in isolation.

What’s increasingly required are generalist foxes to solve these mysteries by joining the dots. Clients are asking for this too: in survey after interview after article, we hear that clients are seeking a ‘commercial perspective’ and lawyers who can ‘give a view’.

Now, I’m not arguing against specialist skills. When you need a competition lawyer, you know you need one and nothing else will do. Similarly, there’s no substitute for a tax lawyer with an incredible ability to recall and apply the statutes that apply directly to your situation. No, these specialist skills are as valuable as they have ever been and will, in my view, always be in demand.

However, I do believe that, due to equating value almost solely with specialism, we’ve got ourselves into a situation where the hedgehog rules while the fox is unjustifiably maligned.

I’m not anti-specialism, but I am pro-generalism. I’m advocating for the generalist lawyer. The lawyer who is able to identify the legal issues and put them in a commercial context.

Who knows when a specialist is required and what is the right question to ask them. Who says ‘yes, I can help you with that’ rather than ‘I need to pass you on to my colleague’.

It’s what clients want and its certainly what we look for when we hire lawyers. So, as the legal landscape becomes more complex, populated with more ‘mysteries’ as well as ‘puzzles’, it’s about time we recognise the importance of the generalist in joining the dots to arrive at a solution.

Peter George is a managing partner at CIE Legal.

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