Having a clear niche allows you to target your audience
If you, too, are thinking of going solo and hanging your own shingle, a foundational understanding you must come to terms with, no matter your age or experience, is that it is not the practice of law that should give a person second thoughts. You learned how to be a good lawyer in law school. If you have never owned or run a business before, what should give you pause is the fact that you are opening your own business. So start before you start, by planning smart: carve out your practice niche!
As in any other business, instead of making a product or service, and then trying to find a market to sell it to, do the opposite: locate a market (i.e. define your customer), and then provide something targeted at that market. When you are looking for "anyone," you will find no one. But when you are looking for someone in particular, you will find them (and they you). Knowing who you are looking for makes your whole game plan easier, from search engine optimization to selecting which networking events to attend in real life. You know which websites your targets go to; you know which events they will attend; and you know which services are complimentary to yours (hello, referral sources, can I buy you a coffee?).
For lack of a better example, I will offer my own. In 2008, while still in law school, I created the Maine Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (Maine VLA) with a friend. With so many artists, a lot of them poor, there was a need in my city for pro bono legal services for artists. I loved helping people, I loved fun businesses and big ideas, and I loved intellectual property law. So for the past four years, I've been close to this rapidly growing "creative economy" in Maine, I've made some great connections, and I've been paying attention to trends. However, while I have referred thousands of dollars of legal services to other fine lawyers, I have never been a part of that community as a practicing attorney.
Fast-forward to May 2012. As the next stage of my life approached, it became clear to me that I truly wanted to use my law degree as a practicing attorney. But, the question became, how? I had a total of four months of private practice under my belt followed by three and a half years of non-profit management, freelance business consulting, and unemployment. In an economy trying to find its bearings and with hundreds of exceptional attorneys freshly out of work, or newly welcomed to this cold market, you can do the math: I was unhirable.
So I looked around at what I had-a lot of connections in the arts and creative economy; what I loved-helping people leverage their IP and grow their businesses by working smarter not harder; what I wanted-to be my own boss, work from home some of the time, and create my own schedule; and what I was capable of-helping other people's businesses by zealously and passionately counseling their growth. It only made sense to hang a shingle and essentially create a for-profit law firm that does what Maine VLA does. My firm opened for business on June 1, 2012, and, it turns out, I was onto something.
Instead of hanging a "General Practice" shingle and taking anything that comes in the door, I have a sense for the type of work I want to do, and I attract that type of work. Even though I am not one hundred percent sure that I know down-pat every legal issue (and the solution therefor) in my practice areas, I have plenty of time to learn. In short order, I am now seen as "the creative economy lawyer" and people come to me as an expert in my field. It's quite powerful and has led to me being offered speaking engagements and involvement in exciting projects that never would have availed themselves to me if I were holding out a general practice shingle.
From a business perspective, I am able to be a vital referral source for other attorneys who do not practice entertainment law and other professionals in general, and it makes it very easy for me to tell other people exactly what type of client I am looking for. If someone asks you, "what type of client could I send your way?" and you answer, "anyone," I can almost guarantee that you will not get any referrals from that person.
Okay, so you are convinced (hopefully), niche market it is! Let's get practical. Approach a law practice like any other new business by researching your markets, deciding on a niche, branding your company, and marketing to that target niche. Here are some practical considerations and action items to finding and introducing yourself to a market that works for you:
This article first appeared in the ABA Webzine Law Practice Today: Going solo? Go niche!: Why Selecting a Niche Practice Over a General Practice is a Favorable Option for a New (or Any Solo) Attorney, Ezekiel L. Callanan, Law Practice Today, Survival Guide for Young Lawyers: Taking Charge of Your Career, August 2012.
Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals. Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.