Choosing a Practice Area

Last week I made an impassioned plea encouraging you to create a business plan.  A big part of the planning process involves selecting an area (or areas) of practice. Sounds easy enough, but is it?

wordcloud

Don’t Choose a Practice Area Because…

Someone else said you’d be good at it, a law professor recommended it, everyone else is doing it, or family members and other influencers practice in the area.

Think About the Kind of Clients You Want to Represent

This step is often overlooked, but deserves your consideration.  Take time to reflect on who you want to serve, rather than what you want to do.

  • Do you want to represent businesses or individuals?
  • Start-ups, small family operations, or evolving companies who might need help with mergers and acquisitions?
  • Individuals?
  • Low income or high income?  Elderly? Young? Vulnerable?

Consider Client Characteristics

While it is possible for any client to display these characteristics, they do appear more frequently in certain areas of law:

  • Emotional (angry, fearful, crying, upset) – Family law, criminal law
  • Impaired or mentally ill – Family law, juvenile law, criminal law, poverty law
  • Distressed – Family law, criminal law, poverty law, personal injury, workers’ compensation, social security disability, products liability
  • Confused – Elder law, estate planning, probate, poverty law
  • Vulnerable – Elder law, juvenile law, family law, criminal law, poverty law
  • Demanding – business law, corporate, real estate, intellectual property

Do You Naturally Lean Toward Litigation or Transactional Work?

If you like ever-changing clients, taking risk, working under pressure, and constant challenge > you may be better-suited to litigation.

If you prefer working with repeat clients, minimizing risk, a steady workflow, and predictability > you may be better-suited to transactional work.

Let’s Play Match Game

What is your tolerance level for working longer hours?  Dealing with gray areas of law, high stakes, or deadlines?  These can also influence a practice choice.

Long Work Days

Working longer hours is often associated with family law and criminal law where emergencies occur in the evenings and on weekends.

Gray or Concrete?

If you don’t mind dealing in gray areas, family law, litigation, trusts, estate planning or immigration may be good choices.  If you prefer things to be more concrete, then consider regulatory law, tax law, or administrative law.

High Stakes

The stakes are higher in criminal law, immigration, and family law.  You will need a reservoir of resilience to practice in these areas.

Deadline Driven

Arguably, this is just about every area of law but litigation reigns supreme when it comes to deadlines.  If you are organized, manage workflows well, and have good time management skills you’ll do well in litigation.

Other Stuff

I should also forewarn you that any area of law where your fee is contingent, like personal injury, means an unpredictable pay day.  Honestly assess whether this is something you can handle financially.

The Informational Interview is King and Queen

Doing informational interviews with other practitioners in an area of law that interests you is – without a doubt – one of the best ways to narrow down your list.  Not sure who to approach?

  • Ask for referrals or suggestions from your first level contacts – people you know personally.
  • If your first level contacts don’t know anyone in the area(s) of law that interest you, ask them for names of other lawyers who might know a practitioner in that area.  Keep asking and pursuing leads.
  • If you don’t know anyone who knows anyone who might know someone who practices in an area that interests you, start reaching out to known experts.  Bar groups – state, local, and specialized – are organized into sections and committees, usually by different areas of law or subspecialties of law.  Who are the leaders of those sections and committees?  Who speaks at CLEs for the various bar-related groups?  Who writes articles in bar group publications? Who writes chapters for OSB BarBooks?

A Formula For Cold Calling

There is an art to cold calling.  (And by the way, a call is generally better.)  Here are the steps:

  1. Do your homework first.  Visit the interviewee’s website.  Look her up on LinkedIn or other social media sites.  Run a Google search.  Read what she’s written.
  2. Review steps three through six below.  If you find cold calling intimidating, rehearse a few times before you pick up the phone.  This will be helpful if you end up leaving a voicemail.  Better to spend time practicing beforehand than to fumble and mumble in your recorded message.
  3. When you reach out, be clear from the beginning that you are not seeking a job and this is not a request for a job interview.  Rather, you are interested in the area of law the interviewee practices and would like to learn more.
  4. Briefly explain why you are reaching out to this particular interviewee. For example, you read her article in the Bar Bulletin, noticed she spoke at at CLE, saw that she wrote the chapter on XYZ for BarBooks, etc.  (To state the obvious, this is where the homework comes in.)
  5. Be respectful of the interviewee’s time.  Spending 60 minutes with your subject would be optimal, but may not be possible.  Let the interviewee know that you are looking for 30 to 60 minutes of their time and stick to whatever time limit you agree upon.
  6. Consider extending a breakfast or lunch invitation. Everyone has to eat.
  7. Prepare for your informational interview.  If necessary, repeat step one in greater depth.  You should come to the meeting with a list of questions you would like the interviewee to answer.  In fact, you may want to have some questions written down before you even pick up the phone and extend the invitation.
  8. Send a handwritten thank you note by postal mail after your meeting.

If you encounter a gatekeeper – receptionist, paralegal, assistant, secretary – bend over backwards to be polite, thank them for their time, and do your best to leave a complete, but brief message.  Make sure the gatekeeper understands you aren’t cold-calling for a job interview.

You might wonder:  why can’t I just shoot off an email?  You could.  And it may work. But remember: your interviewee is busy and already buried in email.  Your message may not get read or may get caught in the spam filter.

Experience shows that calling and following up by mail is more effective.  Both are more personal than email and require more effort – which doesn’t go unnoticed. Calling means the staff person or lawyer to whom you speak can hear your tone of voice.  Your gratitude and appreciation come across in a way that email can’t match.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Postscript

What should you do if you leave a message and don’t hear back?  Don’t be discouraged. The majority of people you reach out to will be gracious and understanding.  Move on to someone else in the same practice area.

I Don’t Want to Create a Business Plan!

I get it.  I really do.  They involve work and you’re busy.  And if you’re not trying to sell someone on why they should give you money to start or grow your law practice, why would you bother?

Because, my friends, every once in a while you should be selfish and do something for yourself.

client-meeting-cropped

Six Good Reasons Why Every Lawyer Can Benefit from a Business Plan

Everyone can benefit from the business planning process, especially startups.  But existing businesses need a vision too.  Creating a business plan will give you:

  • Clarity about what you want to do
  • Control over your own fate
  • A strategy for staying organized and on track
  • Accountability
  • A way to measure and monitor your progress
  • A path to help you move forward

For associates in law firms, creating an annual business plan is the only way to build a successful strategy for bringing in business – something all associates are expected to do sooner or later.

For partners, annual business planning is likely to be more about reflection: now that I’m an experienced lawyer with a book of business at XYZ Law Firm what do I want to do? If the answer is: make a lateral move, creating a business plan will likely be required.  If the answer is: something else entirely, then time spent reflecting and planning will help you ferret that out.

Why Lawyers Don’t Write Business Plans

Aside from the obvious excuse that creating a business plan is time consuming, you may also perceive it as too difficult.

But there is an even better reason not to write a business plan.  If you don’t put specific goals and objectives on paper you can’t fail.

Here’s What You’re Really Missing Out On

The problem with avoiding failure is that you also set yourself up not to succeed. And you miss out on the other benefits that go along with creating a business plan.

Create a Direction and Lower Your Stress

When you know what you want to do, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there (the specific objectives included in your plan), it lowers your stress level. There is no more floundering or misdirection.  Having a plan means you’re back in control.

Doing What You Want to Do For People You Want to Work For Means Reduced Exposure to Liability and Ethics Complaints

There’s a huge difference between practicing door law because you’ve always done it versus purposefully choosing a niche.

The door law route exposes you to greater risk of malpractice claims and ethics complaints.  Keeping up with a few areas of law is hard enough.  Trying to keep up with five or ten is bordering on ridiculous.

Imagine instead that you are working in one area, or a handful of areas, that you know well or can master.  With a focus, you can target clients deliberately and work for a client base that you truly want to represent.

You’ll Also See Gains in Efficiency, Money, and Resources

You are a resource.  Your staff is a resource.  Spend your resources on meaningful, designed goals.  This is what creates efficiency.  And with efficiency you can’t help but save money.  Or at a minimum, experience a better return on your investment.  You know it, you can see it, you can measure it.

Business Plan Checklist and Resources

If I’ve convinced you, contact me.  I’m happy to send along my business plan checklist and a list of resources for creating a plan.  Do what you want to do.  I am.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

How to Succeed in Practice

Succeeding in practice requires momentum, courage, and hard work.  No one knows
that better than a solo practitioner or small firm lawyer.Motivation1

Whether you’re starting out, retooling, or want to make a change, consider this sage advice from Ann Guinn, one of the presenters at the Oregon State Bar Solo & Small Firm Conference.  She may just motivate you to get moving!

All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis

Postscript

For related content with a greater focus on the financial side of practice see this post on Storify.

 

March Issue of In Brief Now Available

The March issue of In Brief is now available on the Professional Liability Fund Web site.  Articles include:

Multnomah County New and Improved Civil Case Management Process
Multnomah County Circuit Court new civil case management rules became effective February 1, 2012, for cases filed after that date.  The new rules and procedures were proposed by the court’s Civil Case Management Committee to (1) improve access to justice using civil jury trials; (2) streamline court operations and reduce the amount of time court staff spend processing civil cases; and (3) generate more predictable trial dates…

Reporting Responsibilities Under Medicare
In the ever-changing field of enactment and interpretation of Medicare statutes, the following is a very brief synopsis of the responsibilities tasked to attorneys and insurers by the Medicare Secondary payer Act (MSPA) and the Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP Extension Act of 2007 (MMSEA)…

“America Invents Act” Changes Face of Patent Law
On September 16, 2011, President Obama signed into law the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (Act), which has been called the largest patent reform measure since the 1952 Patent Act and effects sweeping changes in how patents are prosecuted and enforced…

The Key to Business Planning: Put It in Writing
Many attorneys are not convinced that having a written business plan would help their practice.  Some respond that their work plans itself.  Many say that they do some kind of planning either daily, weekly, or monthly; they just don’t put the plan in writing…

Proposed Changes to the UTCR
The Uniform Trial Court Rules (UTCR) committee met on October 14, 2011, to review proposals to amend the UTCR…

Using Voice-Mail in the Office
If used properly, voice-mail can be a very effective way to communicate with clients.  To avoid telephone tag, make sure your greeting covers all the bases…

Check Scams Become Even More Sophisticated and Generally Have No PLF Coverage
Over the last few years, many lawyers have fallen victim to various financial scams.  These scams generally involve the lawyer being given a check for a large amount of money, often without having to do a lot of legal work … If you fall for a scam of this nature, beware that it is most likely not covered by your PLF plan…

Tips, Traps, and Resources
Addresses tips, traps, and resources relating to construction law, domestic relations, tax law, state court closures, clarification of filing fees, 2011 Oregon ethics opinions, and Best of PMA 2011 blogs.

Cases of Note
Reporting on holdings affecting civil procedure, attorney fees, consumer law, real property/foreclosure, torts/statute of limitations, and insurance law.

How to Write a Mission Statement in 30 Minutes or Less

Two years ago I spoke at the King County Bar Association’s Solo and Small Firm Bootcamp.  It was a red-letter day because I had the great fortune to hear counselor and mediator Joe Shaub.  Joe had tons of great advice, not the least of which was this simple, but effective exercise for writing a professional mission statement in 30 minutes or less:

Part One (10 Minutes)

Rank the values listed below on a scale of 1 to 4:
1 not important, 2 important, 3 very important, 4 extremely important.

  • Achievement
  • Ambition
  • Adventure
  • Affection
  • Beauty
  • Broadmindedness
  • Cheerfulness
  • Cleanliness
  • Competence
  • Competitiveness
  • Comfortable Life
  • Cooperation
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Discipline
  • Economic Security
  • Equality
  • Exciting Life
  • Fame
  • Family Happiness
  • Family Security
  • Forgiveness
  • Freedom
  • Friendship
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Helpfulness
  • Inner Harmony
  • Integrity
  • Involvement
  • Intellectual
  • Logic
  • Loving
  • Loyalty
  • Mature Love
  • National Security
  • Order
  • Peace
  • Personal Development
  • Pleasure
  • Polite
  • Power
  • Recognition
  • Religion
  • Responsible
  • Salvation
  • Self-Respect
  • Wealth
  • Wisdom

Part Two (5 Minutes)

Identify the values you ranked as very (3) or extremely (4) important.  Make a list of each (very important values grouped together; extremely important values grouped together).

Values ranked as 4 – Extremely Important:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

(Continue on another page if needed).

Values ranked as 3 – Very Important:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

(Continue on another page if needed).

Part Three (10 Minutes – Allow 2 Minutes Per Question)

Next, complete the following five statements.  Write down the first thought that comes to mind.

1.  What I always dreamed of being or doing was:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

2.  My three or more greatest gifts or talents are:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

3.  The things I feel quite passionate about are:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

4.  The most satisfying moment in my professional/educational life so far was when:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

(Continue on another page if needed).

5.  What made that moment personally satisfying to me was:

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________

(Continue on another page if needed).

Part Four (Allow 5 Minutes)

Using the answers from Part Three, complete the following sentence:

My mission is to apply my gifts (which are                                        ,                               , and                                                                )* in advancing that which I deeply value (                                                           ,                                               , and                                                    )** in the service of                                                                  .***

* See your answers to Part Three, item 2.

**See your answers to Part Three, item 3.

***Consider all the values you listed as extremely important from Part Two.  Also consider persons or groups you deeply desire to serve and/or causes or ideals you deeply wish to advance.

It doesn’t get much easier than that!