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When is the right time to specialise?

My advice for any accountant, lawyer, or consultant is to develop themselves as a specialist. Being known as The Go-To Expert will build your reputation, and your career, far faster and more successfully than being known as a Jack or Jill Of All Trades.  However, getting the timing right can be tricky. Specialise too soon, and you miss out on a foundation of broad technical and commercial skills. Leave it too late and you will struggle to build your own practice. In this article, I set out a number of issues to consider when deciding to specialise.

You need that foundation to build upon – up to a point

At the start of your career, you need to be willing to turn your hand to everything. It builds your reputation as a team player, and also gives you a taste of all types of work.  However, the time will come when it’s not wise to work at everything and anything that comes your way. You need to start being known for particular types of work.  It’s not enough to be vague and say you are an “employment lawyer” or “VAT specialist.”  A niche is much tighter. For example:

  • An employment lawyer who works within the banking sector.
  • A VAT expert for retail and e-commerce companies.

Is a niche really necessary?

As with most things, it’s about balance. Some professionals, particularly in smaller firms, will find they don’t need, or the firm cannot support, very narrow specialisms.  However, you’ll still find the partners leading on different areas of work.  So, yes. I’d say unequivocally that if you want a successful career, you need some sort of niche. A niche is built gradually. Your ‘interest’ becomes a ‘specialisation’ and then a ‘specialism’.  Eventually, it may become The Thing that is synonymous with your name.

Becoming a specialist in a sector (or two) means you will be in more demand than colleagues who remain generalists.  That sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.  Your name will become the first one that springs to mind when the assignment leader is deciding who to put onto a project.  You’ll still get opportunities for other types of work, but there you’ll be competing on a level with your peers.  Within your niche, you have a head start.

Look at the people in your firm who have built strong careers. I bet they are all known for particular skills.

So, when should you start building your niche?

Pretty much as soon as you are qualified!  That’s the best time for you to explore all the options open to you and find out what makes you tick the best.  As your charge-out rate starts to increase, you and your firm need to be able to justify the increasing cost.  Being able to say that you are the firm’s expert is the way to do this.

Once you reach the stage where you are beginning to build your own practice – once you reach senior associate, senior manager, or director – you need to have a strong personal brand.   It needs to be strong enough that people send work to you rather than someone more senior.

It takes focus, dedication, and hard work to be a specialist.  And those attributes are rewarded with more work and faster promotion.  It’s never too early to start dipping your toe into different pools to find out where you work best, and then start pushing for work in that area.    As soon as you are the Go-To Expert for particular work, building your own practice becomes much easier.  Read more articles on why niches work and how you can develop your own.


This article originally appeared in a different form on the How to Make Partner website.

Heather Townsend helps professionals become the The Go-To Expert. She is the author of the  award winning and best-selling book on business networking, the ‘FT Guide To Business Networking’, Poised for partnership and the co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life’, and ‘The Go-To Expert’. Over the last decade she has worked with over 300 partners; coached, trained and mentored over 2000 professionals at every level of the UK’s most ambitious professional practices. 

Heather blogs regularly at How to make partner and still have a life and works with future and current Big 4 partners and professionals from mid-tier firms all over the world

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