Lawyers core competency – Must we specialize or be incompetent?

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, the headline read “Double-O: Better for Obama than Oprah.” The writers of the article cite a study by a Fordham University political science professor. He concluded that her popularity went from 74% before the endorsement to 56% and is currently at 46%. He suggests that Oprah’s endorsement for Obama was far more costly to her than might have been imagined.

It also brings to my mind Corporate America’s lesson: Stick to core competency. PSA, an airline formerly based in California, for example, expanded beyond flights to operating hotels and rental cars, among other enterprises. They considered themselves to be in the entertainment business. But, this expansion extended them beyond their core competency, transportation. The market place ultimately punished them and they were acquired by another airline.

Railroads, in the early 20th century, considered themselves to be in the railroad industry and therefore ignored both the new car industry and the airplane industry.  Here, in the reverse, they mis-calculated. They were in the transportation industry, not the railroad industry … and the other forms of transportation “ate their lunch.”

In the case of media stars, what is their core competency? Does Oprah know how to evaluate politicians more than the average American voter? Does she risk her high status by moving into the political arena?  What would happen to Lance Armstrong, the renowned winner of the Tour de France, and his efforts on behalf of cancer victims, if he were to take sides in politics? Would he have the same moral authority?

What happens to lawyers when they seek to be all things to all people? Do we need to focus on limited areas of practice, to enhance our competencies and our credibility with clients? There is tremendous learning required to be competent in any given area of practice. Can one lawyer maintain his/her competence in many areas at the same time? Can one truly be a general practitioner in today’s world, or must a group of lawyers gather together in one firm or one network to offer multiple skills to clients?

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