Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

Reinventing Yourself As A Lawyer

Before I once again provide you with thoughts and advice that will hit a nerve, causing your bitter self to (1) again claim, like you do every week, that you hate this column, hate reading every word I write every week, and don’t know why you continue to read every word, every week, or (2) send me private emails thanking me, I just wanted to comment on David Mowry’s closing of comments in his column.

It’s fun to watch the commentariat scatter in desperation for another place to spew, using other columns to cry like infants about their loss of entitlement to say things that make them feel better about their miserable lives just based on the amount of up-votes they get (hey, three people who always like what I say liked what I said, again!).
I don’t know why Mowry closed comments, but I just want to reiterate that I will never close the comments on my columns. There is no reason to stifle irrelevancy.

I’ve watched lawyers reinvent themselves — both successfully and unsuccessfully. It can be done, but like anything else in the legal profession, it takes thought and time. (I just lost half the audience.)

For those left here, there are only two reasons you want to reinvent yourself. One is money, and/or two, is that you hate what you’re doing…

Let’s take two scenarios. First, you’re a former prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer who after three years of defense work wants to do personal injury. You’ve been practicing six years and the dream of going from $40,000 as a prosecutor to $250,000 as a defense lawyer just hasn’t happened yet. You also hate all your clients, and hate the work. Everyone says there’s more money in PI, and you’re convinced that five-million-dollar verdicts are readily available for the taking.

This is a lawyer that has not become “the man (or woman — oh, you were getting ready to pounce) to see,” and therefore doesn’t have a lot to lose by shutting down the defense shop and moving into the world of PI work.

But if you’re this lawyer, I wouldn’t recommend you open up shop as a PI lawyer. I’d recommend going to do insurance defense for a couple of years. There’s the steady salary that’s probably about or more than you were making, and no one will really miss you for a few years. This is not to say you can’t just wake up tomorrow and say you’re no longer doing criminal defense, but remember that when you reinvent yourself — especially if you’re going to be doing contingency work — the money won’t start coming in right away.

So go do insurance defense, meet all the people in the practice area, and then emerge on the plaintiff’s side. I suggest this for other practice areas as well — if you’re relatively young in the practice, it’s easier to reinvent yourself by learning on someone else’s dime. You’re probably not making the kind of money that is tough to walk away from, and if your goal is to be competent rather than just taking money from clients and pretending, or sending embarrassing emails asking 300 lawyers for “a copy of a complaint for negligence,” it’s a better move to learn how to practice in your new area while not having to worry about making rent.

For the lawyer who has developed a multi-decade practice and well-known reputation in a certain discipline and decides it’s time to do something else, it’s not necessarily more difficult — it’s just different.

This type of lawyer has been his own boss for a long time and going to work for someone is generally not an option. My advice for this lawyer, or the younger lawyer that doesn’t want to get a job to learn the new practice area, is to find a lawyer that does this type of work. You’ve got to be careful here. No lawyer wants to teach another lawyer to take his business, unless he’s close to retirement. Find a lawyer who does something similar. Going back to the PI example, I would find a lawyer who concentrates on medical malpractice. I would tell this lawyer that I am looking to get into PI, but don’t want to do med mal. This sets up an immediate referral relationship. Not every lawyer will be interested, but those that understand the benefit of having someone around that does something similar will at least consider the possibility of working together. I would tell this lawyer that I want to work together on my cases and will pay co-counsel fees in accordance with my Bar Rules.

There is, of course, a marketing aspect of reinventing yourself. Two things to consider. One, I’ve seen the “now accepting personal injury cases” type ads. I guess that works if you’re a lawyer who does mass advertising. The other way of course is to mine your list of current and former clients. One thing lawyers are bad at is understanding the value of relationships with clients after the case is over. I don’t care what you practice, every client leaving your office when a case ends should be told to contact you for any legal issue. It’s not that you practice in more than one or two areas, but you want to be the person the client calls so that you can maintain contact and put them in good hands.

If you do this as a matter of course, you now have an easy path to communicating your new practice area.

One last thing: Reinvent yourself if you hate what you do. If you are reinventing yourself because you think you’ll make more money, I hope you do — because if you don’t, you’ll hate what you do.

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

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