Niche Practice

With both law school and the law school application season about to resume, let’s return to our popular series of Law School Success Stories. While we believe it’s important to provide our readers with accurate information about the perils of law school, including data about high lawyer unemployment and crushing student debt, we like to balance out the doom and gloom with stories of successful lawyers who made winning bets on legal education.

Today’s success story comes to us via the august pages of the New York Times. Even though this young lawyer didn’t go to a top-tier law school, he’s enjoying a phenomenal legal career, marked by fame and fortune.

His story contains valuable lessons for people thinking about, or already enrolled in, law school. Let’s learn more about him, shall we?

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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….

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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?

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I recently came across an article about an Atlanta solo-practitioner who has found a niche practice area. He has become the go-to guy for dog bite lawsuits. The article was interesting to me for two reasons. First, I love me a niche practice. Second, in the article, the attorney, Evan Kaine, discussed a problem common for many small-firm attorneys. That problem is the difficulty of collecting on judgments and getting one’s fees paid.

Kaine explained the reason for the difficulty as follows:

In June, Kaine’s clients were awarded $60,000 in one case and $700,000 in another, but he questions how much, if anything, they’ll ultimately collect. The problem, said Kaine, is that in these and many other dog bite cases the animals’ owners are renters who have no insurance and whose landlords’ homeowners policies cannot be tapped under Georgia law. Despite having clients who are in some cases grievously injured, Kaine’s recovery prospects are dim at best and constitute “small victories,” he said.

As sad as it is when a client does not get the award he is due, it is much worse when the lawyer does not obtain her fees for the work done to obtain that award, right?

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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….

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Before I sat down to write this column, I thought I knew what trolls were. Answer: they are the men who I dated in law school. Apparently, that is only partially true. Trolls are also a potential revenue source for small firms.

The term “patent trolls” is a controversial term with multiple meanings. According to Wikipedia, the definition includes a party that does one or more of the following:

• Purchases a patent, often from a bankrupt firm, and then sues another company by claiming that one of its products infringes on the purchased patent;
• Enforces patents against purported infringers without itself intending to manufacture the patented product or supply the patented service;
• Enforces patents but has no manufacturing or research base;
• Focuses its efforts solely on enforcing patent rights; or
• Asserts patent infringement claims against non-copiers or against a large industry that is composed of non-copiers.

The controversy can be seen by comparing the views of those considered the trolls (the non-practicing entities with patent rights) to those who are sued by the trolls (often big companies). For instance, compare this to this. The former considers the notion of a patent troll to be a myth, while the latter describes patent trolls as “reprehensible.” For those of you looking for a side gig, you may consider talking to the silk-screeners of the Team Aniston and Team Jolie t-shirts during the Brangolina saga.

Regardless of where you fall on the Team Trolls versus Team Troll-Haters debate, a recent article suggests that patent trolls can mean big money for small firms….

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