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Editor's note: This is the second article in a new nine-part series on how lawyers can resolve to work smarter this year, which is featured on lawjobs.com News & Views. Links to the previous article in this series, as well as to articles in other series co-authored by Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass, follow this article.
Developing a specialization and excelling at it is one way to differentiate yourself from the pack. The narrower your niche, the easier it is to streamline your work, stay current with the law and establish yourself as an authority. You also can market more effectively to your target audience so that prospects and referral sources will remember exactly what you do. Beware, however, of putting all your eggs in one basket. If your target industry takes a dive, or laws change, then so may your practice.
CHOOSING YOUR SPECIALTY
You can approach specialization either by determining the services you want to provide, or the clients you wish to serve. A combination of both zeros in on providing particular types of services to certain types of clients.
Determine which areas of law generate the most revenue for your firm, and consider expanding upon one or more of those. Stay ahead of industry trends and seek to identify upcoming legal needs. Then, develop your expertise in areas where you believe there will be significant potential business.
Market conditions impact the availability of legal work regardless of lawyers' preferences. For example, during the mid-2000s, law firms had a tremendous need for corporate transactional attorneys, so many attorneys were assigned to those departments. However, in the following weak economy, there was a dearth of corporate work, and associates were directed into litigation, bankruptcy or workouts/restructurings. Similarly, the incredible progress in computer, communications and biomedical technology gave rise to increased need for intellectual property attorneys. Thus, those with technical educational or work backgrounds were encouraged to join those practice areas.
Furthermore, politics affect which areas of law are best to pursue, or become necessary to abandon, as new regulatory schemes are enacted, modified, superseded, enforced or ignored. For example, antitrust and other regulatory schemes are more or less enforced, depending upon who is in the White House.
Inform your firm of your intention to develop a particular niche. Even better, show them how that practice would benefit the firm and its clients. Determine whether anyone at your firm is involved in your specialty or a similar aspect of the practice and, if so, ask to work on any related matters that come into the firm.
In addition to the need for a particular specialization, select an area of law that most intrigues you or with which you have a deep connection and affinity. The area you target can highlight something in your personal background (e.g., geography, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability/disease, or military service), previous work experience or industry knowledge, general legal interest, passion (e.g., arts, animal rights, or environment) or relevant training. Choosing an area for which you are particularly suited will help you develop and effectively market your expertise.
If you identify an opportunity where no one else is practicing, that's great. You'll have less competition. Ask yourself, however, whether there really is a need. If you believe there is unmet demand, getting up to speed in the legal issues surrounding that practice might be challenging and the lack of mentors can make it difficult.
BECOMING AN EXPERT
Experience in your chosen field helps, of course, but it's possible to develop a niche in an area in which you have no prior knowledge or experience. You can build expertise over time. Demonstrate initiative and commitment by reading everything you can get your hands on and attending MCLE courses related to the practice area, even if it's on your own time and dime. Join specialized bar associations, and get active on committees. Moreover, depending upon your desired area of practice, you may need to go back to school for an advanced degree or take exams to become a certified specialist, or to appear before a new tribunal.
Talk to attorneys involved in your desired area, and ask them how they actually spend their time. What do they like or dislike? What qualities and skills do they use? What future do they see in that practice? If possible, find a mentor who is experienced in your targeted specialty.
Seek to work with individuals in the industry (not necessarily attorneys), join and get active in trade associations, and research industry issues. The most challenging aspect of developing a niche practice is learning the "buzz words" and matters that affect businesses in that industry. Study the legal issues involved with the particular sector (e.g., regulatory, legislative, contractual). Research ways to address these concerns and present those services to your target clientele.
To get started in a new practice niche, you must be flexible and willing to take some risk. You may also need to cut your fees or work pro bono to gain experience. Furthermore, you may have to give up some of your existing client base if they don't require services in your new area. You also must develop a plan for selling your new practice to new clients.
MARKETING YOUR NICHE
Promoting a niche practice requires the same tools and techniques as any other business marketing strategy. It's just more industry specific. If you're targeting potential clients that are part of a distinct group (either because of your expertise or the demographics of your client base), it's easier to focus your efforts. You can write for publications they read, attend meetings and conferences they attend, speak to associations they belong to, write blogs with keywords they search on, and so forth. You can garner the trust of clients in any industry by understanding the concerns that those businesses face and communicating with different businesses in their language.
Organize seminars for and send e-mail updates to attorneys within your firm, referral sources, and potential clients to educate them about your specialty. Add a blog to your firm's website that details your particular practice. Issue press releases to inform the media about your firm's niche and to keep them abreast of changes in the law. Then, when reporters have a legal question that pertains to your legal focus, they will contact you for a quote in a news article. Resulting articles can be posted to your website to further the idea that you are an expert in this field.
As the "go to" lawyer in your particular area, you will be of immeasurable value to your firm as the well-publicized face of a compellingly branded niche practice. By winning clients for your specialty and opening the door for broader firm representation, your career will prosper.
Valerie Fontaine is a senior legal search consultant with Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, based in Los Angeles. She is the author of "The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers" (January 2006, NALP). Fontaine can be reached at (310) 839-6000, or visit www.sfbsearch.com.
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