Gary Ross, another founder of a small corporate law firm, writes in Above the Law about how lawyers should handle client inquiries about areas of law outside their specialty. As Ross notes, this issue comes up far more for lawyers at small law firms than it does at big ones, where there is usually someone with appropriate seniority and expertise to weigh in.
Clients should definitely avoid the mindset that lawyers should be able to speak intelligently about the basics for every area of the law. Law school and the bar exam cover a lot of ground, but far from everything. There is no reason to expect that a randomly selected lawyer would be able to rattle off details about, say, import/export regulation or local liquor licensing requirements, if asked out of the blue. While there are still true generalists who practice in small towns, their actual knowledge base is limited to the types of matters that generally come up among citizens doing regular things, i.e., not derivatives regulation.
My approach when asked about unfamiliar areas of the law by clients is to combine transparency about my non-expertise with a proactive approach to getting the clients the help they need. If it’s an area truly outside my corporate transactional practice (e.g., estate planning, divorce representation), then my help is limited to getting the client connected with the right specialist, with no further involvement from me. But for areas that are not within my expertise that tend to come up in the transactional context (e.g., tax structuring, real estate purchasing and leasing, fund formation), I’m able to more directly loop in help from specialists that I work with regularly. In that context, I make sure to understand the advice provided by the specialists and how it affects the particular matter I’m working on, but I avoid presenting myself to the client as someone who can speak authoritatively on matters outside the direct advice that the specialist has provided.