Attorneys who specialize or limit their practice areas

By Lee Schroeder

In most professions, there are specialties. For example, some doctors focus on pediatrics or cancer. Similarly, construction contractors may be plumbers, drywallers or masons.

My clients know that I seldom go to court and I never defend people accused of crimes. Instead, my practice is generally limited to business, real estate, estate planning and estate administration. Usually, my clients are farmers or small business owners, and almost all of my clients are rural folks. Thus, I have a lot of personal and professional experience in agriculture. Additionally, I actively participate in and support the agriculture industry, including speaking at an Ohio State University Women in Agriculture series meeting this week. However, I am not an “expert” or “specialist” in agriculture law.

There are no “majors” in law school. Attorneys are trained in all areas of the law during law school. And, after admission to the bar, attorneys are licensed to undertake any legal work, subject to each attorney’s competence in undertaking that task.

Attorneys are expressly prohibited from calling themselves “experts” or “specialists” unless they fit within one of 14 different specialist categories of substantive law. To be an official specialist in one of the 14 different categories, the attorney must have several years of experience in that field of law. Specialists must also pass a rigorous written test that deals with the topic. And, specialist attorneys must be recognized by other attorneys and judges as being a specialist in that area of the law.

In northwest Ohio, there are very few specialist attorneys. Most attorneys are general practice attorneys, meaning that the attorney represents clients in a broad array of contexts. This does not mean that every general practice attorney is competent to do all types of legal work. Some attorneys obviously have more experience in certain subject areas than other attorneys do. The value for an attorney in having a diverse general law practice is that the attorney can increase the likelihood that there is sufficient work to keep the attorney’s professional staff busy year-round.

In Ohio, there is no specialist certification for agriculture or business law, so I could not become a “certified specialist” in those practice areas even if I wanted to. Of course, because I am not a specialist or expert in these fields, I cannot call myself a specialist or expert. This is why attorneys may indicate that their practices are limited to certain subject areas instead of calling themselves experts or specialists.

Attorneys are expected to discipline themselves to not accept representation for matters within which the attorney is not competent. Therefore, it is not always necessary to find an attorney who is a specialist, as long as the attorney is competent to handle the particular task for which the attorney is hired.

Hiring specialist attorneys can be prudent, but even more importantly, clients should seek out and hire attorneys who have focused education or passion in the particular subject area and have demonstrated competence in that subject area.

By Lee Schroeder

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