A common topic in my discussions with small-firm attorneys is whether or not to specialize. There are pros and cons to both, but one of the greatest difficulties in specializing as a small-firm lawyer is to make sure that your niche can provide enough business to serve as the sole focus of your practice. For instance, it may be possible to focus exclusively on trusts and estates matters, but it is unlikely possible to focus solely on fashion law.
There appears to be a growing area that may be worthy of a niche practice: reproductive law. Consider the statistics (provided by Andrew Vorzimer who specializes in this area and writes the blog Eggdonor): 1.5 million couples will seek treatment for fertility related issues this year and half of those will be unsuccessful with traditional treatments and likely turn to assisted reproductive technologies (e.g. in-vitro fertilization and surrogacy), which often require specialized agreements (and could lead to specialized litigation). Despite this demand for legal services relating to assisted reproductive technologies, there is a dearth of legislation in this area. Together, these seem like the building blocks for a lucrative and exciting legal specialty.
There is another reason why smart, competent, and ethical lawyers should consider this specialty. This is because there are small-firm lawyers in this field like Hilary Neiman and Theresa Erickson….
The FBI, working with socialite Taylor Stein, busted these lawyers for their part in a baby-selling ring. On July 28 and August 9, Neiman and Erickson, respectively pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and admitted filing false representations with the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego related to various surrogacy agreements.
In California, it is illegal to sell parental rights to babies and children, but it is permissible to enter into surrogacy arrangements if the women expecting to carry the babies, gestational carriers (“GCs”), and the intended parents (“IPs”) enter into an agreement prior to an embryonic transfer.
Neiman and Erickson paid women to become implanted with embryos in the Ukraine. If the women sustained their pregnancies into the second trimester, Neiman and Erickson (and another conspirator) offered the babies to prospective parents by falsely representing that the unborn babies were the result of legitimate surrogacy arrangements, but that the IPs had backed out. In violation of the California law, Neiman and Erickson entered into surrogacy agreements with these potential parents after implantation. The agreements provided that the babies were to be sold for over $100,000 each.
This case has incited many to call for improved regulation in the area of assisted reproductive technologies. Glenn McGee, editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Bioethics, explained that regulating in this area is difficult because of the market pressures and the “exploitative and predatory legal practices” that exist.
I am not suggesting that Erickson and Neiman are representative of lawyers who specialize in reproductive law. Of course, there are bad apples in all areas of law. Erickson and Neiman, however, provide strong evidence that there is a need for smart and ethical small-firm attorneys in this new and evolving area of law.
And, this area might be particularly appropriate for Biglaw-turned-small-firm attorneys because they may have an existing client base. Just think about all the aging, overworked, single female attorneys with whom you used to work. It’s a gold mine!
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.