I like the phrase “pie in the sky.” I do not know where it comes from and I do not really understand what it means, but I like pie and I like the sky. Recently, I spoke to a lawyer who was able to turn my favorite catch-phrase into a niche practice area. Well, at least he deals with issues in the sky, and he has the largest slice of that pie.
Fred Hopengarten is an antenna zoning lawyer. What does that mean?
“I represent people who want to put an antenna high in the sky,” Hopengarten explained. “If you run an AM, FM or TV station, if you are a radio ham, or a land owner approached by cellular telephone company, and the neighbors are going to go berserk when they find out you are going to erect an antenna – call me.”
Can you turn that specialty into a twenty-one-year career?
If you are Fred Hopengarten, the answer is yes. Becoming an antenna zoning lawyer, while perhaps not the most obvious specialization, was a natural fit for Hopengarten.
When he was ten years old, Hopengarten became a licensed ham radio operator. At Colby College, he was the Chief Engineer of his college radio station (Colby College, WMHB). He has held virtually every class of amateur radio license issued by the FCC, including the highest class. After law school (Boston College Law School), Harvard Business School, and seven years in management consulting, he started the first home satellite TV dealership in the world, which later became a cable TV company, and ran it for 12 years.
Hopengarten decided to sell his business to a cable TV company — perhaps you’ve heard of it, now Comcast — and retire.
“But one day, while I was in my PJs, drinking a cup of tea, and reading the Wall Street Journal, my wife – she’s a physician – was about to leave for the hospital,” he recalled. “Carrying a briefcase in one hand, and a travel mug in the other, she turned to me and said: ‘If you don’t go back to work, I’m gonna kill ya.’”
Despite never having practiced law, Hopengarten had sought building and zoning permits many times, and he knew a lot about towers, antennas, and antenna zoning law. “Twenty-one years, a lot of articles in trade journals, and three books on antenna zoning later, I’m an antenna zoning lawyer.”
The future for antenna zoning law, according to Hopengarten, is very exciting. With an ever increasing demand for mobile communications — including a big push coming that will require new antennas for emergency responders — and constant opposition to antenna systems by people who want all the convenience of modern communications without the pain of ever seeing a visible antenna, the field is growing.
While Hopengarten’s niche “found him,” he had this advice to offer to young lawyers considering specialization:
I think young lawyers should try to practice law so that they can hang around with people they like. I happen to like engineers. I’d suggest specializing in an industry, such as military law, construction law, finance law, advertising law, and so forth – if you like the people in those industries. Stay away from antenna zoning for another five years, however, until I’m ready to slow down.
And, if you pick a field that is narrow enough, you may become the national expert in the field. To support your practice, however, it helps to be the guy who “wrote the book.”
I wrote the book on antenna zoning for the ARRL – the national association for amateur radio, and the book on antenna zoning for the Society of Broadcast Engineers. Each is the best-selling book ever written for its audience on antenna zoning. Of course, it helps that each is the only book ever written for its audience on antenna zoning.
There’s nothing like expertise to sell personal services.
So, for my small-firm attorneys looking for their niche, may Hopengarten’s story be a lesson to you: do what you love, don’t be afraid to change course and start over, and listen to your wife. Perhaps you too will be able to sell your business to Comcast one day.
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 [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.