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?

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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.

Choosing a Practice Area

10-16-2013 4-34-22 PMIn my last post, I shared some words of wisdom from our If I Only Knew panelists at Learning the Ropes 2013.  This week I’m offering further advice from our panelists on how to choose an area of practice:

Business and Financial Considerations

  • In what businesses do you have knowledge and expertise?
  • Do you have special contacts in a particular field?
  • Can you identify a specific market for your legal services?
  • What is the competition like? 
  • Are there enough clients to warrant another practitioner in the geographic area? 
  • Can you provide better, less expensive, or more convenient service?
  • What are your cash flow considerations?

Personal Considerations

  • What area of law do you like?
  • What kind of clients do you want to represent?
    • Businesses
    • Individuals
    • High income – estate planning, business, real estate
    • Low income – poverty law, domestic relations, consumer law
  • What challenges you?
  • What gives you great satisfaction?

Other Considerations

Overall, do you prefer civil or criminal? If civil, do you see yourself as a litigator or transactional lawyer?  If criminal, how do you feel about court-appointed work?

Still Unsure?  Conduct Informational Interviews

If you are unsure about what area to practice in, talk with people who practice in the areas that you might be interested in. Take them out to lunch or to coffee and conduct an “informational interview.”

You’re Off and Running

Once you figure out what area you do want to practice in, try to develop your marketing niche.  This may be the practice area itself, or it may be a twist that differentiates you from someone else in your geographical area. Figure out your difference, and make sure that people know what it is.  Sample marketing plans, business development checklists, and marketing worksheets are available on the PLF Web site.

Parting Words

Practicing is a process, and changes are inevitable — what you choose may be a stepping stone to something else.