17. September 2021

Specialisation – an occupational risk or even a trap?

Experts’ desire to specialise is easy to understand. In my view, however, it is bound to lead to a situation whereby it is easier to compare experts with their competitors and to replace them more quickly. To counter this undesirable effect, one should become more complex and diverse!

Experts know the problem: knowledge is constantly increasing, and clients expect you to be competently informed about everything. Yet it is impossible for a GP to have answers to all medical questions, for a lawyer to be conversant with all the areas of law or for a tax consultant to be able to solve all fiscal cases. Therefore experts opt to specialise in a part of their field – not least for liability reasons. In this way they satisfy clients’ expectations with regard to competence, at least in this field.

But what disadvantages does such a voluntary reduction entail? I can see the following, in particular:

  1. 1. Limitation of the angle of vision: you lose the overview of the big picture, thus also losing sight of clients and their problems.
  2. 2. Loss of relevance as a single individual: if you are only at home in a small part of your discipline and define yourself through this, you will ultimately be reduced to it. The expert degenerates into a simple supplier of one specialist answer.
  3. 3. Loss of control: as a single cog in the machine, you quickly lose visibility and are unable to control things from the command centre.
  4. 4. Less binding client relations: relations with clients change, and there is a risk of becoming insignificant and losing clients. If you were previously a trusted advisor, then as a specialist you become a trusted expert, or even merely an expert.
  5. 5. Higher degree of comparability and easier replaceability: if owing to your specialisation you solely satisfy one single criterion, you will reduce your complexity as a person and an expert. It will suddenly become easier to compare you with competitors and can therefore be replaced more easily.

A simple example from the legal market: if you want to appeal against dismissal in Switzerland and have to look for a lawyer, you are spoilt for choice. In Switzerland, more than 10,000 lawyers are registered with the Swiss Bar Association (which incidentally does not even reflect the number of practising lawyers). If you search for “Arbeitsrecht” (labour law) on the website of the association (Lucerne, radius of 200km), you will find 1,718 lawyers. If you narrow the search down even more and stipulate that it must be a “Fachanwalt SAV Arbeitsrecht” (expert lawyer SBA, labour law), who therefore deals far more with this area of law, the search will still yield 158 people. For someone who is looking for advice and cannot rely on a trustworthy recommendation, all these lawyers are suitable – i.e. can be replaced by each other. How can I still stand out as an individual?

If you want to improve your own unique selling point in the market, you should therefore not only rely on specialisation. This may be useful for establishing a good foothold and providing a good gateway. Rather, you should additionally (!) develop in terms of breadth, i.e. diversify and become more complex. By this, I do not mean a second specialisation in the same discipline, but really developing yourself in terms of breadth. Offer your clients knowledge in further disciplines, i.e. also in other specialist fields. Acquire competencies and skills in the personal and social sphere (so-called soft skills, or better: social skills). And, in particular, improve your knowledge of your client segments with their clients and their products.

In this way, everyone will win in the end: the more you can offer your clients, the more pleased and satisfied they will be with you because your expert advice will not only be more useful and appropriate, but they will not have to interconnect its individual components themselves. What is more important for you, however, is that you will become more complex and thus less easily replaceable as an expert, which helps you to reinforce client loyalty in a simple manner.

My recommendation: do not only do the one thing (specialisation), and do not neglect the other (development in terms of breadth) either.

If you are interested in the issue of relationships of trust and trusted advisors, I would like to refer you to my recent articles about lawyers: detailed version in Anwaltsrevue, 4/2019, pp. 149-161, or the brief version in AnwaltSpiegel pf 19 June 2019.

About the author
Prof. Dr. Bruno Mascello Academic Director Law & Management of the Executive School of Management, Technology and Law at the University of St.Gallen, Director of the executive programme for lawyers “Management for the Legal Profession (MLP-HSG)”, attorney at law, lecturer and author dealing with various topics at the intersection of law and management.