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Pros and Cons of Being a General Practitioner

People used to ask me, "What kind of a lawyer are you?"

"A good one," I liked to reply. It usually brought a smile, and always brought a follow-up question: "No, like, what kind of law do you practice?"

In the law practice world, clients seem to expect that lawyers have a specialty. It almost goes without saying, but here goes anyway: there are pros and cons to being a general practitioner.

Con 1: Jack of All Trades

If you are a general practitioner, maybe you are not very good at anything in particular. At least, that's what persists with the idea, "jack of all trades, master of none."

But that really is a false premise. The expression comes from a jealous dramatist, who in 1592 called actor-turned-playwright William Shakespeare a "jack of all trades."

So a generalist may have many skills, including exceptional skills in any given area. But people tend to think differently.

Con 2: Small Fish in a Big Pond

"General practitioner" is almost synonymous with "solo practitioner." After all, solo practitioners often start out as general practitioners because they need business wherever they can find it.

But if you are a general practitioner in a big city, get used to being on the bottom rung of legal service providers. It doesn't mean that your skills are substandard, but it does mean that big clients will go to BigLaw more than to your part of town.

In the internet age, it is possible for a solo practitioner to get more recognition than even the largest law firms. But 15 minutes of fame does not equal $15 million in annual revenue.

Con 3: End of General Practice?

Daliah Saper, a recognized legal voice through television and other media, started as a general practitioner but realized it wasn't working. She was taking whatever came in the door, and she was not getting good at anything.

"That's when I made the affirmative decision to stop telling people I was a lawyer and instead, stated the kind of lawyer I was," she wrote for the ABA Journal. She said general practice may be a good starting point, but not the best place to end up.

"In sum, allow yourself an exploratory phase to decide the best type of law to practice," she said. "However, don't wait too long."

Pro 1: It Never Gets Old

Whatever comes in the door is what makes life interesting. If you are not specializing in one kind of case, you are going to see all kinds of cases.

Harrison Barnes, a legal placement consultant, worked at a big law firm and left to try general practice. It wasn't for him, but it was definitely different. He said his clients included:

  • A woman who claimed that a teacher was biting her 4-year-old child to punish him; the teacher admitted doing it to make the child shut up.
  • A woman, with three children, who wanted a divorce but was unsure about paternity because she had multiple boyfriends.
  • A man who wanted to sue a veterinary hospital for firing him. It turned out the client had been sexually abusing animals.

Maybe not his favorite or best-paying clients, but they were certainly more interesting than a life full of discovery disputes.

Pro 2: Master Your Destiny

You don't actually have to take every case, whether you are a general practitioner or a specialist. It really is a business decision.

But general practitioners have more control over some business decisions because they are more flexible. For example, a general practitioner can set up shop in a small town where a specialist or a big firm will not even try.

And small towns are looking for lawyers. The rural midwest is literally paying attorneys to set up practices there.

Pro 3: The Future and Beyond

Outside of small towns, general practitioners have to adapt to changes in the marketplace. Big firms have staked out the big cities, and legal service providers are taking away work that many solo attorneys depend on.

Legal market analyst Jordan Furlong says general practitioners can compete -- and even thrive -- if they rework their business models. They need to focus on advice and counsel rather than documents and processes, and they have to become "specialists."

But it's just a name, and what's in a name?

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