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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 1, 2017

From Legal Generalist to Specialist. Good Career Move?

Julie Q. Brush

The Question: I’m a 10th year in house generalist and want to specialize in compliance. Is this a good career move? How do I make the transition?

That which defines a “good career move” depends on several variables. To me, the most important are whether the move you are contemplating will satisfy your true interest, challenge you and ultimately…make you happy. But there are other important elements to consider that must be weighed and balanced in order to arrive at the right decision for You.

Knowing which way the wind is blowing in the market is an important first step – as it will help you assess the career benefits and challenges to specialization. So which way is the wind blowing? Below is some background along with today’s forecast.

Historically, the legal profession was dominated with specialists – those who were experts in one substantive area of law…familiar with all of its nooks and crannies. It was the norm for how things were wired and structured back in the day. As the growth of the in house legal department picked up steam, specialists were tapped to join the movement. The typical department consisted of its leader (typically a corporate securities specialist) and his/her lieutenants who were brought in to service one specific legal area and stick to their knitting. This was the status quo for much of the mid to late 2000s until perception changed regarding the expanded value a lawyer could provide the organization.

No longer “the path to no”, lawyers today are business savvy partners with the ability to competently manage a variety of legal issues that come across their desks and push business forward. Consequently, an increasing number of legal eagles are developing expertise in a variety of substantive areas as opposed to just one. In addition, in the struggle to retain the best and the brightest, executives know they need to offer the opportunity to learn new things. Consequently, a new generalist is born every minute. Given this market reality, diversifying your experience is a wise career move in today’s legal market. Why? Because possessing legal knowledge in a broader number of substantive areas will give you options. Options give you leverage. And leverage is good.

But what if you don’t want to diversify your experience or remain a generalist? Are you killing your career by moving to a specialized practice like compliance?

No. But it is important to know the downsides as well as the upsides of the move before making your decision:


  • By narrowing your lane you will create marketability for your chosen specialty, but will cut off other broader employment options for yourself.
  • If you have a change of heart and wish to return to the land of the generalists, you’ll experience some challenges as you try to transition back. How high these hurdles are will depend on how long you are in your siloed role, the role itself and the brand quality of the organization.
  • If your goal is to be a General Counsel one day or if you’re just not sure where you want or where to be in five years, then a compliance specialization will diminish your marketability for such a role unless your tenure in the field is limited.
  • In order to make the transition, you may need to take a more junior role, which could have financial implications.


  • Compliance is an area of law that you enjoy. And that is immensely important…particularly for lawyers. Those who do what they enjoy experience higher job satisfaction and more success.
  • In today’s corporate world, not every company executive wants a stable full of generalists. Many companies still have legal departments that are siloed – not necessarily by business units, but by practice area. And these companies often prefer to cultivate specialists as their legal departments grow. So while choosing this path will reduce broader employment options, those in your specialty will remain. In fact, depending on the scarcity of and supply for your specialty, you could find yourself the target of many suitors throughout your career.
  • Compliance is a substantive area that is in increasing demand for in house legal departments and isn’t going away any time soon.

So now that you know the sky won’t fall if you transition to a specialty, what’s the best way to do it? Below are a couple of options:

A lower level compliance role in a larger company.

If you don’t have a great deal of compliance experience, you will have to take a level hit in order to become a purist. In addition, some compliance functions are housed outside of legal. So you may encounter opportunities that will take you into a different corporate vertical. Depending on the role, this may or may not create challenges with regard to your next compliance job. So consider these opportunities carefully and manage your expectations accordingly.

A slightly diverse role, but with a strong compliance bent in a private or smaller public company.

This would move the needle, but not completely – and would serve as an interim step to tee you up for a pure compliance role in your next job. This would be a good move if the market reflected that you needed more compliance experience for the pure compliance positions.

How about a law firm?

As a 10th year lawyer seeking to specialize this wouldn’t be a viable move. For the more senior lawyers, law firm executives want to hire those who bring a portable book of business or in some cases a high demand niche practice. As a senior retool, you would not have the economic or practice profile that would be appealing unless you could generate business from your existing employer. In addition, law firm lawyers who have experience in compliance have a diversified practice where they handle other types of legal issues for their clients as well. So this for not be a good fit for you – as you would not develop into the specialist you seek.

Clear Messaging.

Before you begin your job search, you’ll need to be clear in mind and narrative about why you want to specialize and what like skills and experience you currently possess that make you a viable candidate. These elements should also be highlighted in your resume and your LinkedIn profile. Employers will want you to make your case so you must be prepared.

If you want to transition your practice and specialize in compliance, I encourage you to do so. It’s what you like and want to pursue as you evolve as a professional. It’s also an area that is growing in demand with increased job security. So the risk in such a move is diminishing. Finally, do not let your seniority discourage you from making this shift. If it’s something you want, you will do it. But like anything in today’s job market, it’s going to take some time and perseverance. So do your homework, weigh the options and move confidently on the road less traveled by. And that will make all of the difference.

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