Lawyers, Litigation/Trial Law

3. Lawyers: Generalist or Specialist — Looking Past the Labels

As you seek a lawyer to represent you in your divorce, should you hire a lawyer with broad and extensive experience in a variety of areas of law practice or a lawyer with experience only in divorce?

My answer is, unless you have a very simple divorce, you want a lawyer with both broad experience and adequate knowledge of divorce. This may appear at first blush to be a contradictory statement, but it’s not. There are adequate numbers of lawyers all over the state who have both broad, extensive experience in legal practice as a whole and also know plenty about divorce.

Frankly, these are the lawyers you’re looking for, and you should be very suspicious of anyone who tells you that your lawyer does not need one or the other of these qualifications.
The reason you must be so vigilant on this issue is because Texas has no system of internship or apprenticeship for lawyers. A lawyer can— and some do—leave law school, take the bar examination, and go directly into law practice without any supervision, restriction, or limitation on the kinds of cases that can be handled. Even if a lawyer goes to work for an experienced lawyer or law firm, there is no assurance that he or she will be exposed to anything outside of a very limited area of practice.

You may assume that a few years in practice will take care of any lack of experience. This may be true. The problem is elucidated by the old joke that inquires, “Do you have twenty years of experience, or do you have one year of experience twenty times?” This may not be such a serious question for lawyers working on corporate tax issues. Perhaps all they need to know about law or life can be found in tax codes. The same might be said for dozens of other areas of law, but probably not about divorce. Divorce has a way of cutting a broad swath across law and life. One divorce may consist only of child custody, expert witnesses, rules of evidence and court rules and procedure, and questions about trial strategy.

The next divorce may be totally dominated by questions of corporate ownership, governance, and finance. Most divorces have several combinations of trial, child custody, and property ownership questions intermingled with huge doses of human emotion and psychology. These issues require a lawyer with broad and comprehensive experience in a variety of areas of law practice.

My emphasis on the need for broad, comprehensive legal knowledge is not intended to minimize the need for specialized knowledge about divorce. Neither is it calculated to demean those who dedicate themselves to maintaining knowledge of family law and divorce. I consider myself to be a member of this group. But acquiring and maintaining the narrow band of knowledge represented by the Texas Family Code is relatively easier to achieve than the more comprehensive knowledge and experience a lawyer acquires by handling a wide variety of complex and difficult cases over time.

Texas lawyers practicing in a particular legal area for a requisite period of time may apply for a certification as a specialist in the particular field, such as family law, taxation, civil trial law, criminal law, bankruptcy law, and several other areas of practice. The certification process requires a written examination, extensive documentation of experience, and recommendations of other lawyers and judges who can vouch for the applicant’s experience in the area of practice in which certification is sought. In short, the certification process is nothing to be sneezed at.

Many lawyers cannot meet the experience requirements for a particular area of practice. Some might not be able to pass the test for a given area.

Many who could meet the experience requirements and pass the test simply do not want to go through the extensive application and vetting process.

Because I am board certified as a civil trial lawyer by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, you might assume that, if I were hiring or recommending a trial lawyer or a lawyer to try a civil lawsuit, that I would recommend only board certified civil trial lawyers. Not so. Yes, there are many board certified civil trial lawyers that I would recommend, but there are others who have this certification who I would be careful to never recommend to anyone. More importantly, if I limited myself only to board certified civil trial lawyers, I would be excluding some of the best trial lawyers in the state. In fact, some of the best trial lawyers and divorce lawyers I know are so busily and successfully trying lawsuits that the last thing on their mind is worrying about getting a certification.

Yes, some of the best divorce lawyers in the state are board certified family law specialists, but many are not certified as a specialist in this area. If you limit yourself to the label of board certified family lawyer, you will deprive yourself not only of some of the best divorce lawyers in the state, but also the best trial lawyers, the best business, real estate, and transactional lawyers, the best corporate or trust lawyers. Depending on the kind of divorce you have, lawyers in some of these other areas of specialization may have more critical and relevant knowledge than someone who knows only “family law.”

So, as with the rest of the advice in this book, we again discover that it’s dangerous to rely on simple labels to try to solve difficult problems. Instead, you have to keep your eyes and ears open, pay attention, use your lifetime of training and judgment, and think. If you do those things, you’ll end up with a lawyer who will do you a good job.

Robin M. Green, Divorce: When It’s the Only Answer (The Ordinary Mortals Guide, Inc., 2005), Chapter 12, pp. 84-86.