The Trial Lawyer as Generalist

I belong to a business development network where members can post needs broadcasted on blast emails. A request for a litigation attorney often asks for a lawyer who specializes in the type of case in question – a “defamation lawyer” or a “policy holder litigator.”

At larger firms it is common for lawyers to cultivate specialization, so that the firm as a whole can market depth of knowledge in any given subject. Specialization certainly promotes clear marketing.

I, however, have avoided undue specialization, and have tried to follow in the steps of old school trial lawyers, available to appear in any matter contested in court. The only limitation I have observed (thus far) is that the case must involve business. I once had a prospective client concerning a case in the garment industry eyeball me and ask if I was a “garment lawyer.” I appreciated the client’s concern that I would understand the particulars of his business, but to do so I did not need to so narrowly limit my practice.

Years ago I enjoyed the biography of Edward Bennett Williams, a Washington D.C. attorney who founded the venerable litigation firm Williams & Connolly. Williams tried business cases of all stripes but also criminal actions. Williams also defended the unpopular Joe McCarthy in hearings in the Senate. This kind of breadth of experience is hard to achieve these days.

The specialist reuses knowledge acquired by repetition.

For a generalist trial lawyer, the only “specialization” one acquires is knowledge of the procedures by which a case is filed, administered, tried and appealed. The challenge of the generalist is to quickly learn the facts of the case and the customs and proceedings of the industry in question and distill them down to the fundamentals, so that the case can be succinctly and persuasively explained to a judge or jury.

When one handles cases across industries, one sees unifying themes. All commerce is ultimately about how goods and services are conceived, financed, created, delivered and sold. Lawsuits contest the result when there is a breakdown in one of those stages. The problems that give rise to suits often boil down to a breakdown concerning a short list of fundamental human traits or obligations: promises, fidelity, trust, honesty or skill. I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to arrive at these unifying observations if I had devoted my career to that of, say, a garment lawyer.

Being a trial lawyer has also allowed me to observe the traits of people under pressure. Any lawsuit, if not resolved, ultimately requires a relatively compact and pressure-filled series of presentations by witnesses, in the form of questions and answers. There is a reason why lawyer shows almost always center around courtroom examinations, as this is where human beings are tested, and either vindicated or found wanting. The best witnesses understand their subject matter and are able to speak consistently and forthrightly. These are signs of intellect and communication skill, but don’t necessarily correlate to integrity. These witnesses can be powerful, but fall hard if they can be shown to have their thumb on the scale of truth. I have seen good people who make lousy witnesses because they cannot answer questions clearly or suffer from law self-esteem. If they can be coached into presently themselves more clearly, a jury may sympathize with their frailties. Some people are able to appreciate how others may see their conduct in different lights; others are incapable of hearing any point of view other than their own.

Short of being an author, I’m not sure what other career I could have picked that would have afforded such a broad view of the world. If you have to work for a living, being a trial lawyer can be a fun choice.