Media and Journalism, Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Six Steps to Becoming an Expert

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

So you’re at a small firm and you want to be successful. Good. Why you wouldn’t want that is beyond me. But if you want to be a successful lawyer, you need to make a name for yourself. If you don’t want to be a successful lawyer, you can leave this post now. We’ll wait. [Waits while the preternaturally mediocre leave ATL for Dlisted or whatever.] OK? The rest of you stick with me.

Look. You didn’t end up at a big firm, because you didn’t go to a top law school or because your first-year grades weren’t as stellar as they could have been. So you’re not going to be making a huge salary in exchange for billing 2,500 hours a year. Deal with it. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a very successful career as a lawyer. It just means that you need to take a different approach.

The most important thing you can do to make a name for yourself as a lawyer is to find a way to stand out from the crowd. Here are six tips on how to do it.…

1. Win a case.
I’m not going to tell you how to do that; you’ll have to figure it out on your own. But eventually, the odds are that you’ll end up on the winning side of a case. Ideally, there will be something inherently interesting about the case. If there isn’t, find a way to make it sound interesting. Maybe there’s a novel aspect to your case that sets it apart from other cases that are similar. Maybe it’s part of a new trend. Whatever it is, you want to find a way to make that case seem noteworthy. (Obviously, this advice is for litigators and not transactional attorneys. But the same advice holds for them, too. Find a way to make your transaction appear remarkable, as in “worth remarking about.”)

In 2001, my partner and I won our first noncompete case, defeating an attempt by our client’s former employer to get an injunction preventing him from working for a competitor. What made the case (arguably) interesting and (slightly) unusual was the choice-of-law issue. The guy worked in California, where noncompetes are completely illegal. His former employer was a Massachusetts company, and the noncompete had a Massachusetts choice-of-law provision. The case (called Aware) turned on that clause, and the judge ruled that California law controlled despite the provision, and denied the injunction.

2. Get some ink.
After you’ve won a case (or handled a transaction) about which something notable can be said, you then need to get in touch with a reporter. If there’s a legal newspaper in your area, that’s where you want to go. If not, the local newspaper is the next best bet. Go through past issues to see if there have been other legal stories, and try to figure out who the right reporter would be to write about your story. Then pitch the story.

This is the dirty little secret of legal reporting. Legal journalists and newspapers are always looking for stories to write about. It’s unlikely that they will learn of your case by checking the court dockets. Unless your case is genuinely big news, no one’s going to find out about it unless you help. Many lawyers are squeamish about doing this. Fine. But don’t expect to get in the paper otherwise.

In Boston, we have a fine legal newspaper called Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. After we won the Aware case, I called up a reporter whom I had met before and pitched her the story. I focused on why we thought the case was novel and precedential, not on how awesome we had been. I also gave her the names of a couple of other litigators in my field who would support the idea that it was an important case. In other words, I was helping to make the reporter’s job easier. As a result, she wrote the story.

3. Do a CLE.
Bar associations and local continuing-legal-education organizations are always looking for new programs, and new speakers to put them on. They know that audiences will start to tire of the same speakers doing the same programs over and over. By volunteering a useful new program, you can make their jobs easier. If you can propose a program with a complete slate of speakers and a well-developed topic, all the better.

Not long after the Aware case, I put together a noncompete panel discussion at the Massachusetts Bar Association. It was a new program, and I proposed a panel of speakers who were ready, willing, and able to talk intelligently about noncompetes. And it didn’t hurt that I was the chair of the panel.

4. Write an article.
Write an interesting, plain-English article on your chosen topic. Reference your case (or transaction) if it makes sense to do so, but don’t do it in a way that makes you out to be the hero of the story. Otherwise it will come across as overtly self-promoting.

This step has gotten much easier than it was ten years ago. Back then, you were pretty much limited to writing pieces for bar-association journals and legal newspapers. Now, blogging and social media make it much easier to quickly write an article and get it out there for the world to read.

My partner and I wrote a how-to-do-it article on noncompete cases for a bar-association journal, with seven or eight handy tips on how to handle that type of litigation. We’re not talking a law-review piece here; this was a breezy practitioner’s guide. It ended up being a useful tool for lawyers who hadn’t done this type of case before. Our own expertise was implicit.

5. Help your colleagues.
When you learn that another lawyer is handling a case similar to yours, offer to share your research or even the brief that you wrote. Many lawyers are hesitant to share work product with lawyers outside their firm, but that’s just silly. First of all, if it’s a filed brief, it’s a public record anyway; you’re just making it easier to find. Second, what goes around comes around. Someday, that lawyer might help you out with a brief she worked on. And third, as you become known as someone who helps other lawyers, those lawyers will come to regard you as an expert.

The Aware decision wasn’t formally published in a court reporter (although it did appear on Lexis), so it was difficult to find. Over the years, I’ve probably shared the decision and our briefs with more than a dozen lawyers.

6. Repeat.
Keep doing the previous five steps, and people will come to see you as an expert. Eventually, colleagues will comment on how they “always” see you in the paper, and will marvel at your media savvy and obvious expertise. Then just smile and shrug graciously.

* * *

These six steps will help establish you as an expert in your particular area, which will lead to more cases in that area, which will allow you to repeat the process. Pretty soon, you’ll be a bona fide guru. That’s exactly how I became known as a noncompete expert. After several years of following these steps, beginning with a single, obscure case, I was getting noncompete referrals from lawyers around the country. In time, I actually did become an expert in the area.

In many ways, it is actually easier to make a name for yourself like this at a small firm, where you’re less likely to have rigid department assignments and bureaucratic media policies, not to mention draconian billing requirements that leave you no time to follow these steps. So take advantage of your situation as a small-firm lawyer and make a name for yourself by becoming an expert.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a consultancy that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd has also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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