It’s hard to stand out when everyone around you does what you do. For a growing number of lawyers, the answer to increased competition has been establishing a niche practice. But you can’t just hang out a shingle and expect the work to roll in. Building your niche practice takes time, and intentional work.
The legal field is an increasingly competitive space. As automated document services and “AI lawyers” have begun to shave away at the market, solo lawyers and small firms are feeling the crunch. According to a 2017 study by Altman Weil, there are simply too many lawyers competing for the same work. The study shows that 61% of lawyers say overcapacity is affecting their firms’ profitability. 88% of firms say they have chronically under-performing lawyers on their staffs.
To fight back against the competition, many lawyers are turning away from the “general practice” and honing in on a specific niche. The American Bar Journal recently published an article, “Building a niche law practice rewards extra work, special training.” The article tells the stories of lawyers who have specialized in everything from environmental issues and lead exposure in children to craft breweries and comic books. Craft brewery lawyer Candace Moon told the ABA:
“Every industry has a need and its own special nuances that make it different. . . . Those nuances are where a niche attorney becomes so valuable.”
But you can’t just decide to become a niche lawyer overnight. A successful niche practice takes smart planning, serious work, and strategic marketing to make it flourish. Here’s how to get started:
1. Find Your Passion, Even if It Has Nothing to Do With Law
“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Confucius didn’t say it, but whoever did showed remarkable insight. If you are doing what you love, your brain is engaged, time flies, and the workday is over before you know it. I’m not saying niche practices don’t have their downsides. Everything does. But the more time you can spend doing something you love, the less you will feel like your work is a slog.
So take some time to think about the thing you love to do the most. Ask yourself, if money was no object, what would you do with your time?
The answer doesn’t need to have anything to do with the law. First, find your passion. Turning that passion into a practice area comes later.
2. Listen Before Your Learn
Once you’ve chosen a passion area, surround yourself with people in the industry – not the legal industry, your passion industry. For Moon, that meant going to craft beer conventions. For you, it could be hanging out with fiction writers or traveling to gardening shows. Whatever your passion, indulge in it. But do it with your ears open.
In law school, we are taught to identify issues from fact patterns. We are given a block of text and told to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it. Use that skill. Listen to the insiders in your passion industry and identify their problems. Maybe freelancers need someone to review their contracts. Brewers could need help sorting through licensing and local ordinances. Listen to the people doing what you love and find out how you can use your legal training to help make your passion industry better.
3. Study Voraciously
The best niche practices are in areas with high need and low legal representation. Many focus on emerging areas like cannabis or LGBT family law. That means you will have to dig for information specific to your industry. Josh Horn, a partner at Fox Rothschild, told the ABA Journal that developing his cannabis practice took a dedication to learning.
“After his trip to Colorado, Horn became a voracious reader on the subject, studying cannabis books and laws from around the United States. To keep up with the ever-changing marijuana trends, Horn set up news alerts; and he reviewed (and still reviews) about 50 stories daily on the subject. He also created an interactive survey tracking relevant laws on the books in more than 25 states and the District of Columbia.”
When developing a new niche practice area there likely won’t be a treatise to rely on. It will be up to you to put together your knowledge of the passion industry with legal solutions from across the practice. “When I set out to master [cannabis law],” Horn said, “I had to create my own curriculum.”
4. Market Your Expertise to Build your Niche Practice
Now that you have established a knowledge base, you can focus on building your niche practice. Your time spent listening to industry leaders most likely developed relationships. Use them to recruit a few industry clients. Once you can credibly call yourself a [niche practice] attorney, start marketing.
Marketing your niche practice is a two-pronged approach. You should make it known to lawyers in your area that you specialize in the specific issue. At the same time you should be marketing aggressively within your passion industry. It may start with a law blog focused on your niche practice area. You can pair that with sponsorship of trade shows or events. Get creative, finding specific ways to reach professionals within your passion industry, even if they may not make sense to the rest of your practice.
5. Synthesize Your Knowledge into Articles, Talks, and Books
As your niche practice grows, you will gather a history of matters you have resolved and clients who have relied on your work. As you address on their issues, researching their legal needs, keep a running tally of topics. Jot down solutions you find and industry-specific legal concerns that professionals may not have recognized going in. Then pull out your laptop, pen, or dictation device and start writing.
The value of building your niche practice is that not many other lawyers know how to help your passion industry like you do. Remember, there is no treatise! Take advantage of that. Speak at CLEs or trade shows. Coordinate with your state’s bar to write journal articles. You may even be able to write a book on the issue. Become the published expert on your niche practice area. As your name becomes connected with that thing you love, your fellow lawyers we refer cases to you and your niche practice will thrive.
Building your niche practice is an excellent way to stand out in a crowded field. But it won’t happen overnight. Developing a thriving niche practice takes dedication and intention. By studying, connecting with industry professionals, and marketing your specialty, you can develop a niche practice that is appealing and allows you to do what you love.
Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist in Ferndale, Michigan. She ghostwrites blogs, web content, and journal articles for lawyers and small businesses. If you need help building your niche practice’s reputation, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.