This week, I was introduced to an IP lawyer. Yawn. Another IP lawyer churning out trademark and copyright applications. Meeting one of them these days is no different than going to a lawyer cocktail hour and meeting yet another “commercial litigator.” (Translated: “I do general irrelevant crap. Where’s the guy with those little spinach things?”)
But I quickly saw in his email that this wasn’t just another IP lawyer:
“My area of practice is intellectual property, but with a twist: I represent technology companies in transactions involving the licensure, commercial exploitation and/or research & development of technologies — that is about 50% of my practice. The other 50% is representing digital marketing agencies, digital production companies, and related businesses in all of their IP and corporate needs. I handle a great deal of work in the area of data privacy rules & regulations, compliance with FTC rules for digital advertising, and matters involving outsourced technology transactions.”
Interesting. Next step is meeting this guy face to face, mainly so I can understand what that email just said. I realize he doesn’t want referrals from every guy in his garage with the next great invention, but although I think I know, I want to learn how and from where he gets his referrals, and how he built his practice.
There’s been a lot written about niche practices. A lot of it has been written by non-practicing lawyers, or those with a niche that they’ve had for five minutes. Although today’s kids would rather hear from those idiots than someone who’s been doing it themselves for a while, I’ll do what I do every week, and offer some advice that may make you less miserable, and cause you to think differently about your practice….
So you’re out there scrapping along as just another lawyer practicing “commercial lit,” or “real estate,” or another general area of law. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but like the medical profession, it’s the specialists, those who do what most others don’t do, that can find themselves in demand, enjoying the practice more, and becoming a good referral source for the masses.
A “niche” is two different things. It’s either a type of practice that most lawyers don’t do, or a reputation in a “typical” practice area that makes you (excuse me, feminist commentariat members) “the man” in that discipline.
If you are “the man” in a certain discipline, you’re most likely not reading this article, so I’ll just skip that part and concentrate on having a practice area that is rare.
Examples? I know two lawyers that handle liquor licenses. I know one lawyer that represents pharmacists. I know one lawyer who represents doctors in the sale and purchase of medical practices and facilities. I know one lawyer who represents gays and lesbians in domestic matters.
If you’re out there trying to build a practice as a generalist, the only way you will do that is by undercutting your competition (unless you want to do one of those old school, non-internet things, and try to build a practice by doing outstanding work that gets noticed). As a “niche” practitioner, you can charge more, know more about a particular area of practice, and watch your generalist friends try unsuccessfully to differentiate themselves with the same marketing buzzwords everyone else uses.
To do this, you must give back. I bet my new IP lawyer friend will tell me that he gets calls for all kinds of IP work, but he refers even matters he can handle out to other IP lawyers so that he can receive referrals from them for the things in which he concentrates. If you want to build a niche in your general practice area, be prepared to give business away. (Did I lose you there?)
But don’t think having a niche practice will cause you to always be in demand. One of the dangers is that no one knows or understands what you do. I read that marketing in a niche practice is “easier.” I disagree. It’s harder. You must constantly be reminding other lawyers what you do — through advertising, speaking, writing, and networking. Otherwise, you’ll be receiving apology after apology for that case that went elsewhere because “I didn’t know you did that type of work.”
The perfect niche practice combination is having that narrow practice area where you become “the man.” That’s when it all comes together, and you can stop doing stupid things, like giving free consultations and negotiating fees.
But it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires your willingness to spread the wealth.
Sorry to disappoint.
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.