Lawyer Specialization–Managing the Professional Paradox


  • I would like to thank my collaborators on the studies report here: Professors Avrom Sherr and Alan Paterson, Drs. Richard Harding and Margaret Robinson, Matrix Research and Consultancy, Thornton Drummond, and Brett. I would also like to thank Bob Lee, Annette Morris, Andrew Francis, and Soren Holm, and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this piece, and Jenny Tran for research assistance. All errors are my own.

Richard Moorhead, Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University, Museum Avenue, Cardiff CF10 3AX, UK. Telephone: +44 2920 875098; E-mail:


This article explores a series of paradoxes exposed by specialization within the legal profession. It will argue that while the existing literature rightly identifies specialization as posing potential challenges to coherence, legitimacy, and professional ethics, it fails to grapple with the relationship between professional competence and specialization. In exploring this relationship, three paradoxes are articulated. The first is that specialization is both a necessary element in the development of professionalism and a threat to it. The second is the normative ambiguity of specialization: specialization is capable of giving rise to both benefits and detriments. The third paradox is the profession's response to this ambiguity. It will be argued that the profession's approach is incoherent in public interest terms and can be best explained as part of a desire to protect its members' interests and its collective identity over the public interest in competence. These arguments are made in the context of a series of three empirical studies of specialists and nonspecialists in legal aid practice in England and Wales. The evidence is worrying enough to suggest significant concerns about the quality and indeed legitimacy of the professional qualification as a general warrant of competence. The implications for institutionalizing specialization within the legal profession are discussed.