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Practices trend toward specialization

By: dmc-admin//May 24, 2010//

Practices trend toward specialization

By: dmc-admin//May 24, 2010//

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ImageA general practitioner can be hard to define, but Madison lawyer Chris A. Jenny said there’s at least one good way to make that determination.

“If you talk to someone who has difficulty telling you what he or she does in 30 seconds, they are probably a general practitioner,” he said.

That’s the case for Jenny, who does transactional and litigation work for businesses and individuals in the areas of business planning, real estate, construction law, business transactions, estate planning, and post-death administration.

But the von Briesen & Roper SC attorney admits that his breed of lawyer is increasingly rare, particularly at a larger firm in an urban setting.

According to the State Bar of Wisconsin, 2,064 lawyers — or less than 10 percent of the 23,541 attorneys licensed in Wisconsin — list themselves in the general practitioner category. And as the practice of law becomes increasingly specialized, some lawyers suggest that number could continue to dwindle. As of January 2006, there were 2,171 general practitioners registered with the bar.

“The true general practitioner we may have seen 10 or 15 years ago is kind of an endangered species because of specialization,” said Nicholas E. Fairweather, chair of the State Bar’s General Practice Section Board.

Bar leadership recently approved a merger of the General Practice Section with the Solo & Small Firm Committee, in part because there are far fewer true general practitioners in the state.

Fairweather, of Hawks Quindel SC in Madison, practices in the areas of employment discrimination, contracts, professional licensure and credit and collection disputes.

In the last few years, especially as technology has advanced, he has noticed more opportunities for attorneys to focus on discrete areas of practice.

“A lot of larger firms are marketing themselves as handling industry practices, rather than various kinds of legal practice areas,” he said.

So within the construction industry practice for example, a subset of attorneys may handle things like labor and employment issues and commercial contract litigation.

Specialization could also be a product of public expectation, said Solo and Small Firm Committee chair Nancy L. Trueblood.

She said the first question someone asks when they meet her is ‘what kind of law do you do?’

“I don’t know if it’s a social change, but I think people better understand the different types of law that attorneys practice,” Trueblood said.

For Fairweather, it has been a way to increase business. Within the last two years, he has tapped into consumer protection work, which has complemented his employee rights litigation practice.

With more attorneys opening up their own practices during the down economy, Trueblood said many are doing so with a background in a specific area.

Or they are sharing an office with another attorney in a related practice area.

“It can create a good dynamic and you can kind of have someone to bounce things off of,” she said. “You may think you are concentrating on only one area, but when other things come up, you can turn to a colleague.”

It could also be that being a general practitioner is more complicated that it used to be.

“You take a lot more CLE if you are doing 20 areas than if you are doing three, four or five,” said Trueblood, who does estate planning.

A 2001 law school graduate, Jenny said he made a conscious decision to become a general practitioner, but it wasn’t something that happened overnight. In addition to making it known to colleagues at the firm that he was willing to learn about a variety of areas, he routinely took Continuing Legal Education books home to read during weekends.

“Maybe it was construction liens one week and fair dealership law the next,” he said. “It wasn’t client work, but for future reference.”

While more new attorneys are hanging out their own shingle after graduation, Fairweather agreed that it takes time to build experience and it’s hard to put yourself out there as a general practitioner right out of law school.

“I’m not seeing a lot of new lawyers just take on whatever, and maybe that’s a good thing,” he said. “You don’t want someone doing complex probate cases a month out of law school.”

For those who find themselves maintaining a general practice either out of necessity, or ambition, Jenny said there are benefits.

When representing a small business, he generally is able to provide representation in a variety of matters, rather than pass the client to several other attorneys for expertise.

He said the advantage is efficiency.

“I chose this practice style because of the client,” he said. “When they come to me they aren’t shuffled to 12 other people in the office.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at [email protected].


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