FRONTLINES

Ask Bill

Q. Bill, I’m 58 years old, and after concentrating in real estate and probate law for over 25 years, I’m thinking of retooling my practice by adding something completely different to the mix, like bankruptcy, personal injury, family law or social security cases. Any advice for me?

A. By this point, you’ve -probably gotten pretty good at, and pretty comfortable with, handling probate and real estate matters. Having focused on these types of cases for the length of time you have, switching your practice’s focus—or even adding a new practice area—is not something to be done without a lot of planning and analysis and at least as much soul-searching.

I have been a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer for 30 years (although now most of my work is in arbitration and mediation), so my ears especially perked up when you said you are thinking about taking on PI work. But the truth is that whether you decide to retool with PI or bankruptcy or family law or social security cases, the analysis will be much the same. It’s just that I know what the challenges are and where the traps lay in establishing a PI practice. According to lawyers I know who handle cases in each of the other practice areas you mention, building a successful practice in them is just as challenging.

So what might the challenges entail in your particular situation?

Issues of “Vintage” and Experience

First, making a big switch is daunting at any age or at any stage in one’s career, but doing it at this point in your life brings its own set of issues. Being of the same “generational vintage,” these are things I think about all the time. To be clear, I would not suggest that you being 58 (or any other age) should be the deciding factor. I have to assume, though, you don’t plan on practicing forever and the question of how long you plan to practice is important.

Just as you wouldn’t decide to become a winemaker and plant a vineyard a year or two before you plan to retire, is there sense in switching practice areas if you don’t plan to continue working long enough to realize any fruits from your new efforts?

So, the first thing you need to think about is whether you plan to continue practicing long enough to tend your new vineyard of cases to the point where you’ll have enough grapes to sell or can make an award-winning pinot noir, so to speak. (Just as an aside, a number of lawyers here in the Oregon wine country have switched from practicing law to growing grapes, but that is for another column.)

If you do plan to stay in practice long enough to give this new project a chance to succeed (and you will hardly be alone, since an increasing number of lawyers are continuing to practice well past the “traditional” retirement age), then what should you consider next?

Maybe the most important issue as you contemplate which of the new practice areas you want to enter is this: How much knowledge and experience do you or other people in your firm currently have in the respective areas? You don’t mention what quantity of work you’ve previously handled in the PI, bankruptcy, social security or family law arenas. But the question of how much you would need to invest in time, effort and resources to get up-to-speed on the issues, regulations and so forth of the day in any new practice area is an essential one.

Additional Food for Thought

In addition to the preceding issues, I suggest you should think about the following ones as well.

Is the location of your probate and real estate practice also a good location for growing business in the new practice area? If you work in a small town, this might not be as much of an issue, but even in the Portland, Oregon, region where I practice, some locations are better than others. Is your location convenient to reach, with parking or a bus or streetcar line close by? Will prospective clients want to make a trek to your location when there are a dozen PI or bankruptcy or family law or social security lawyers between their house and your office?

Assuming you have staff that assists you with your probate and real estate practice, have you checked with them about how they feel about adding an entirely new category of cases to their workload? Do they know anything about handling PI cases? Bankruptcy? Social security? Family law? It’s going to be challenging enough for you to “learn the business,” but to have to train your staff in a completely new area might be more than you want to take on. Will you need to add someone to handle only your new cases? Have you considered the cost of that? Do you even have room for another person in your office?

All of the practices you mentioned involve a high-volume of cases where you don’t make a lot of money on any one case, unless of course you decide to handle “big-ticket” medical malpractice or products liability cases (which you probably don’t want to tackle). Are you prepared to deal with the flood of new clients and “one-off” matters that profitability in these areas typically requires?

If you are seriously thinking about a high-volume practice, are you prepared to do the marketing and advertising necessary? When I quit advertising in the Yellow Pages 10 years ago, my partner and I were spending more than $100,000 per year, and doubtless (like everything else) it costs a lot more now. Add to that such advertising vehicles as TV commercials, Internet advertising or search engine programs such as Google AdWords and your budget will quickly add up. Even with a sizable marketing budget, it will take a year or two to begin settling or resolving enough cases to become profitable. Are you prepared to ride it out during that time? Will you be using revenue from your probate and real estate practice to subsidize your new venture? Will you have to borrow money?

What’s more, the practice areas you mention are difficult and time-consuming. I’ve shared office space with probate and real estate lawyers and, while their jobs were no picnic, they never quite seemed as perpetually frantic as my staff and I were as we juggled all the balls in a PI practice. To make it work, you may need to have 100 cases going at a time. Do you want to commit the next five or more years to working that hard? Are you and your staff committed to that much juggling?

The Big Question: Why?

Like I pointed out at the beginning, retooling a law practice successfully means you should do some considerable analysis. Ultimately, though, whether you want to add PI cases or other practice areas to your mix, the big question you need to ask yourself is “Why?” Why would you take on what is essentially a new practice rather than dedicating yourself to growing your probate and real estate practice? I realize that the recession has taken its toll on real estate lawyers, but from what I’ve read, probate and estate planning are areas that are still going strong for many. Alternatively, it may be that after so much time, your current work is feeling, well, stale to you. Perhaps you find the prospect of branching out in new directions exciting, which in and of itself could be a valid reason.

But whatever your reason for wanting to retool, your decision as to how to proceed will, in my opinion, turn on how you answer the “why?” question. Everything after that is just a matter of time and money.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice, 2 nd Edition (ABA, 2006), and the editor of Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo and Small Firm Lawyer, 4th Edition (ABA, 2005).

Have questions about your career, your practice, your computer or anything else? Send them to Bill Gibson at kwg@gibsonmediation.com. Read past Ask Bill columns in the Law Practice archives at www.lawpractice.org/magazine.

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