GPSolo Magazine - January/February 2004
Diversified Practice: Tailor a Good Fit
Being a lawyer may define who you are, but your chosen practice specialties will define what you do each day. What you do can define and complete your pleasure with who you are. In addition to enhancing and enriching our day-to-day lives, doing what we like to do helps us manage and diffuse stress.
If you’re feeling in a rut about your practice and feel increasing pressure to pull in more work, you may be ready for a complementary practice area—a way to diversify what you do each day. Diversifying your practice specialties may mean developing a broader menu of services for existing clients, offering similar services to an expanded market base, or going whole hog and adding a bit of both. Each approach, of course, has its benefits and drawbacks because the practice of law is as varied as society itself.
Becoming a lawyer is one thing, but practicing is quite another—you have to deal with clients. Practice specialties drive the type of potential clients you attract. A business lawyer interested in litigation work once told me he feared corporate clients would feel uncomfortable sitting in his reception area with alleged criminals—which may help to explain why criminal defense frequently is a single practice area.
How do lawyers choose a practice area in the first place? Most likely just as you did—by weighing a variety of factors: inventories of your interests and skills, an eye toward the law school courses you most enjoyed (and likely evidenced competence), and, most importantly, where there was a job. Expanding your practice now that you have some experience requires steps to learn what motivates you to do your best work and how you can integrate your new interests into your daily practice. Your jurisdiction’s ethical rules likely describe competence in a way that allows flexibility in choosing new practice areas.
Let’s say that you are the hesitant business lawyer referred to above. You may have your eye on complementary practice areas—it seems pretty clear you’re drawn to trial work—but the opportunity may not be ripe. In the interim, you might consider building your knowledge of the criminal justice system by handling such cases for a temporary period. For example, consider registering with a lawyer referral service. Handling small criminal matters helps pay the bills as you develop your lawyerly skills in negotiation. It can expand your current knowledge of the local bar. It can help you learn to handle difficult clients, as criminal defendants may sometimes be. At a minimum, attend a CLE or two that targets litigation topics and see how the exposure suits you.
Another good starting point for adding litigation work (or work from another specialty area) is to consider venue. For a variety of reasons, some practitioners choose to work only in state courts, while others prefer the federal courts. Lobbyists, for example, practice in a fairly defined area, with offices usually located in a state capital or in Washington, D.C. As we will see, many specialties inevitably encompass related specialties. Venue and location can suggest the types of clients and matters you’re likely to have. (I know of one lawyer who carved a niche practice around a single title in the state code.) Remember too that your choice of location—rural, urban, or suburban—also affects your practice choices. Obviously, more rural spots usually lead to a more general practice, and solos will handle a variety of matters within a select group of practice areas.
Yet another way to start diversifying your practice is to work with someone whom you respect as an expert in a field. That person may be willing to charge a reduced rate for answering your questions—and may even welcome fresh insights in return. Get into practice areas where you enjoy doing set-up work such as preparing forms or briefs and where you enjoy interacting with clients with those types of problems. Even marketing strategies may influence the practice areas you consider; for example, advertising will be more expensive if you’re buying exposure in both general and legal media.
There is logic to the notion that practice specialties with a nexus can help to hone a lawyer’s skills. You get to know certain types of clients and their expectations and needs very well, which helps you do well and lowers liability risk and stress. You have confidence that you offer a well-rounded service with airtight procedures—the best service possible. Your staff also benefits from the structured systems and the high standards they enable.
But . . . it’s also good business strategy to think in terms of diversifying your income stream. A single practice area may be working for you, but keep an eye on the types of matters you are referring out. Is there a pattern to their type and frequency? Are you missing a possible “natural” for diversifying your practice?
What Are the “Naturals”?
Consider practicing either small business law or personal law. Each allows you to maintain a consistent client pool and consistent systems for doing the work. It is unusual, if not impossible, for a sole practitioner to handle all personal law practice areas simultaneously: ADR, bankruptcy, personal injury, collections, criminal defense, domestic relations, estate planning, probate, immigration, real estate, tax preparation, guardian ad litem, and elder law. You shouldn’t try to do so—you risk too many mistakes. A solo might represent small businesses and focus on in-tellectual property issues but handle personal matters for the principal(s) rather than risk referring them to another firm and possibly losing that client’s business work.
If you like litigation, consider expanding to include family and personal injury law because you can continue to use and sharpen your litigation skills. But family law can involve several other specialties: ERISA, business law, wills and trusts, stocks and securities, domestic violence, wealth management, vocational and mental health counseling, and immigration law. And what might be the legal standing of pets or farm animals? Are you prepared to handle the psychological demands of family law clients who at certain points in time are not very happy? Your people skills will be taxed to the limit—but afterward, those same skills can serve you well in mediation work. Representing family law clients may require being available at an odd hour to talk about case strategy or a changed circumstance, such as the need for a restraining order.
Here is a quick review of personal interests or practice areas that naturally suggest other specialties to explore:
• Environment: Real property, land use, environment, mineral rights, public utilities, zoning law
• Social work: Family, juvenile, elder law
• Arts: Contracts, copyright, nonprofits, small business
• Science/technology: Patent, health, intellectual property, personal injury, medical malpractice
• Business/ownership: Business and corporate, mergers and acquisitions, startups, contracts
Bar associations often have combined section categories, such as “real property, probate, and trust,” because the respective practice areas go well together and often lead to one another. Talk with members of these sections about how they combine their specialties. In a personal injury practice, collateral issues about workers’ compensation, insurance coverage, health care provider reimbursements, insurance bad faith, and consumer protection act claims frequently arise—all areas that might work well in combination.
Avoid the “Unnaturals”
Avoid combining practice areas that force you to change gears mentally every time the telephone rings. You do not want to create a mistake-prone office environment because you’re maintaining multiple file systems, checklists, and other procedures. An example would be trying to combine criminal law and estate planning/probate. Also try to avoid specialties that do not have at least a potential to feed clients to your other area(s). Remember, combining specialties that attract matters too diverse to complement each other may induce too much stress.
The subject of practice liability might provide additional clues toward combinations that may not work. Certain specialties generally may not generate as many malpractice claims as other practice areas. High-risk specialties include intellectual property, real estate, and securities. A better choice for a small firm might involve some combination of ADR, criminal defense, family law, immigration, guardian ad litem, and/or elder law. Bar statistics reveal that grievances for family law and criminal law are higher on the list than other specialties, yet they are not always high malpractice claim risk areas.
Other very practical factors can influence your choice of complementary practice specialties.
• Personal preference: You prefer to work at your desk and not be subject to planned or unplanned court appearances or other interruptions.
• Meetings: Business-related practice areas often entail evening meetings.
• Paperwork: Certain practice areas are more paper-intensive than others. How organized are you (answer honestly)?
• Travel: How often will you need to be away? Will travel hurt your ability to produce income, properly supervise your office, or spend downtime with family?
• Staff: How much help will you need? Staff is more costly and requires effective communication and delegation.
• Businesses: Learning about your clients’ industries and practices may involve more schoolwork than you’re up for.
• Malpractice insurance: Certain practice areas spike insurance premium costs.
During the course of your career, your practice likely will venture into areas you originally did not consider. Be alert to your changing interests, the changing law, changing markets, your work/life balance, and your changing income needs. Be open minded and unafraid to learn something new. Most important, do not feel “locked in” to your present practice. The unknown is daunting, but the risks of gradual change are worth it for control of your practice and your own peace of mind. And remember: You can always return to your former practice area.
Peter Roberts is practice management advisor for the Law Office Management Assistance Program of the Washington State Bar Association. He is a frequent speaker on law office management topics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.