Creating and refining your niche will help you to win more of your own clients. Next you might ask, ‘how niche do you really need to be’? Is it essential to be THE expert? This article answers the question, ‘how specialist do I need to be?’ and concludes that you may still be able to be a generalist to progress your career.

Why do clients want to work with an expert?

Imagine for second that a member of your family was diagnosed with a brain tumour, (and I hope it won’t happen to you or anybody you know). Who would you want to operate on them? Would you look for the top brain surgeon in the country or a general surgeon who was going to ‘have a go at it‘. Needless to say you would want the best best brain surgeon that you could get.
OK, your prospects don’t need a brain surgeon, but the same principle applies. If your potential clients have some work they need doing, it is rare that there is no risk at all. The work you do might carry a level of risk their personal reputation, their wealth, their time, or their business’s health.
Clients are, generally, only happy for anybody to work for them, when there is no risk – i.e. only the very small and very mundane matters. The ‘FT Effective client advisor relationships report‘ in 2012 identified that 67% of clients wanted their professional advisor to have a good and deep understanding of the world that they operated in.

So, how specialist do I need to be?

There’s the problem, if your clients really want to work with an expert, how specialist do I need to be, or how much of an expert? When building your portfolio of work, and in the early days of your business, becoming the specialist, or The Go-To Expert can sound daunting. Every expert took time to get to their status, when will you start your journey and how far do you need to go on it?
Typically the path to becoming an expert tends to go like this:
  • Generalist.
  • Generalist with a growing interest in…
  • Generalist with specialism in….
  • Specialist in….
  • Known expert in….
  • The Go-To Expert for ….
 Consider a small high street law practice. Their marketplace will be catering to legal needs such as family law and conveyancing. They may also be dealing with small business needs such as commercial property, contracts, and buying and selling businesses.
There probably isn’t enough of a marketplace locally to feed a real niche specialist such as a residential property litigator. So being a ‘commercial property lawyer with specialisms in’.… is as far as you probably need to go.
At the other end of the scale, (i.e. a London city law firm) being a ‘commercial property lawyer with specialisms in...’ is not going to be enough of a specialism to progress your career to partner.

Can I be a generalist and grow my portfolio?

Yes, if you are in a small local practice which generates the vast majority of its business locally. However, even for this scenario you really need to be a ‘generalist with specialisms in…’
If you are going to stand out from your peers and competitors then you really need to be known for something.
The answer to the question ‘how specialist do I need to be’ is one step further towards expertise than your competition. If your competition are all “generalists with specialism in….“, you probably need to be a specialist.

Does that risk having no work?

It’s not just litigators in this position. It’s also professionals who sell ‘very distressed purchases’ such as insolvency practitioners. In this scenario, my advice is no different. You need a level of specialisation in order to stand out from your peers and competitors. However, given the reality of life for a litigator or insolvency practitioner, you will normally take what you are given or what falls into your lap. You will probably remain far more of a generalist than your non-contentious peers; until you get very, very senior it is unlikely that you will have enough work to solely build up a practice based around being a ‘known expert in…’
How far will your journey towards being the The Go-To Expert go and when will you begin it?


Written by Heather Townsend. I help professionals become the 'Go To Expert'. I am the co-author of 'How to make partner and still have a life', 'The Go-To Expert' and the author of the award-winning and bestselling book on Networking, 'The FT Guide To Business Networking'. To find out whether I can help you read 'is this you' Connect with me on ,  LinkedIn and Twitter