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Specialist or generalist? You decide

The march towards specialisation in the legal profession appears inexorable. But is it better to stay a generalist? Amy Bullock looks at what recent recruitment trends mean for local government lawyers considering their next job.

The discussion of whether it is better to be a specialist or a generalist is one that often comes up – and as the market continues to change so do the pros and cons of each of these career options, as the sector demands different skills and specialisms. So ultimately there is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question. However, there are a number of considerations for legal professionals as the wider environment affects the direction your career takes.

Over the last 12 months the profession has been impacted by a number of factors (as indeed have the majority of sectors). These include the economic climate, the reorganisation of local authorities, a slump within the private practice arena and the knock-on effect of individual high profile cases – such as Baby P – leading to a catalyst for change within specific disciplines. All of these influencers demand different experience and specialism, opening up opportunities for both ‘specialist’ and ‘generalist’ legal professionals.

The reorganisation of local authorities has, for example, had a significant impact on the expertise required by the newly formed unitary authorities. Smaller district councils have traditionally required more generalist lawyers to meet the more mixed and varied demands of their client base. However, this trend has now changed with the much larger, merged organisations requiring more specialised legal professionals.

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These changes have led to a number of challenges for those lawyers that are more generalist, who may be able to turn their hand to a diverse range of areas but are not necessarily an expert within a specific area. They have also placed specialists in a very strong position. But these new demands have led to local authorities suffering from significant skill gaps, and they have increasingly been turning to specialist legal recruitment agencies to recruit locums to take on specific projects and cases.

In the last year a number of key areas demanding experienced local authority specialist lawyers have also emerged, including childcare, adult care and employment. Expert lawyers in these disciplines have become the highest paid legal locum professionals in the market, earning up to £40 per hour. These lucrative hourly rates mean that there has been an increase in lawyers that are keen to work in these practice areas.

Following the Baby P case, demand for childcare specialists continually outweighs supply, as clients consistently demand previous local authority childcare experience – meaning that strong childcare lawyers are not out of work for a prolonged period of time. It is anticipated that a similar development will take place within the adult care and employment disciplines over the next year.

It is not just specialist locums that are benefiting from these opportunities either, as local authorities are increasingly taking on permanent specialists as they start to plan for the year ahead and realise that the issues they are facing are not just short-term.

This is not to say that there are no opportunities out there for more generalist legal professionals – demand across the country is still strong for experienced, high calibre multi-faceted lawyers, with good rates of pay on offer. There is also a school of thought that suggests a broader range of experience can open the way to more senior management roles.

As with any job search in the current market, you should be flexible and open to new opportunities in order to enhance your career. And if you are a generalist and looking to become more of a specialist, maybe consider looking at locum work as this will increase your experience working in new sectors and build up more specialist skills that will enhance your CV.

Regardless of whether you are generalist or specialist, it is a good idea to keep yourself up to date with changes within the sector through attending CPD seminars and training sessions. These can provide you with a solid insight into specific specialisms and potentially open up opportunities for you. A number of organisations offer these events on a regular basis – as a legal recruitment specialist we provide our candidates with a series of free CPD sessions nationwide, ensuring that we are supporting their development and providing the platform for valuable networking for our local authority lawyers.

Amy Bullock is manager of the legal division at Sellick Partnership Yorkshire.

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