Developing a Niche Practice

By Rudy Rivera

The practice of law has changed tremendously since I began practicing in 1980. For the small practitioner, clients came mostly through word-of-mouth. There were also a number of lawyers who had relationships with other professionals who referred clients to the law firm. These included, but were not limited to:

  • body shops
  • medical doctors
  • contractors
  • insurance agents
  • previous clients

Most small practitioners handled a number of matters in several areas, including divorce, bankruptcy, criminal, and personal injury. Most lawyers who specialized in specific areas generally worked for the larger law firms.

When the Supreme Court allowed lawyers to advertise, however, the traditional methods of obtaining business became somewhat obsolete in certain areas of the law.

  • Criminal defense attorneys could purchase a list of those arrested in any particular county and send a letter offering their services.
  • Personal injury attorneys could pay for large ads in the Yellow Pages and on billboards, radio, and television.
  • Divorce attorneys could advertise on the radio and billboards.

The practice of law has also become increasingly more complicated. Divorce attorneys now have to deal with qualified domestic relations orders that have serious tax consequences to the client. Child support and visitation also have become more complicated, with international treaties on child custody and support.

General and sole practitioners who can practice in a multitude of areas are now in the minority. More lawyers are choosing to limit their practice to certain areas. There are many benefits:

  • It is easier to keep current with the law.
  • Work can be streamlined because the area of law is familiar.
  • Depending upon the area of practice, there is less competition among lawyers.
  • Other lawyers can become a source of business.
How I Started My Niche Practice

Until 13 years ago my practice included criminal, domestic, personal injury, traffic, and other miscellaneous areas. I also represented small- to medium-size businesses wanting to do business in Latin America. My ability to speak Spanish was a huge benefit. I also did a fair amount of federal criminal defense.

One Monday I received a call from a court reporter who wanted to adopt internationally. I had no clue as to what I was doing and made that very clear to my client. However, she insisted that I do the work. I contacted my uncle’s law firm in the Dominican Republic, who happened to know a birth mother who wanted to place her child with an American family. The baby was born in October, and by December he was home in St. Louis with his new parents. I enjoyed the challenges of international adoption and decided to develop my practice in that area. When my law partner learned that I was handling a foreign adoption, he became angry and said I should limit my practice to what we know.

Learning How to Market My Practice

I still practiced in other areas on the law. My focus shifted to developing more international adoption clients. Because our firm generated most of its business via word-of-mouth, I assumed that adoption clients would also come through word-of-mouth. This was partially true. There were some differences in gaining new clients, however. For example, in criminal law, the client generally hires the first lawyer he or she reaches on the telephone. The adoption client is a much more informed consumer. As potential clients called, many asked if I had printed materials to send them. I generally said no because I didn’t have any and offered a free half-hour consultation. A potential client would say thank you, and in most cases I did not hear from him or her again.

Adoption clients are atypical:

  • They will call almost all the adoption professionals in their area and request printed materials.
  • They will review the materials and perhaps call again to ask more specific questions.
  • They will ask for references and ask those references for other references.
  • They will call the Better Business Bureau.
  • They will take time to decide who to retain.

After several years of trial and error, I developed materials my office could mail to potential clients. Almost immediately this had a significant impact. More potential clients began to schedule appointments after they reviewed the printed materials. Let me emphasize that my materials consisted of a red file folder with photocopied information in the pockets. It was nothing fancy, but it was effective.

The Internet was also an effective tool. Adoption clients surf the net to obtain information on adoption professionals. They visit listserves that are established for those interested in adopting in certain areas and ask questions. They look at the adoption professionals’ websites and carefully read the information. Consequently, I developed a website that contained details about my adoption services and kept track of the number of hits on the site. The adoption packet that was mailed to clients could now be downloaded from the Internet. An e-mail was sent to my Blackberry telling me who downloaded an information packet and all their contact information. This was important because:

  • The expense in labor hours and the cost of photocopying were dramatically reduced.
  • Clients received the information instantly.
  • I could track the number of inquiries and get identifying information on those who downloaded an information packet.
Becoming a Perceived Expert

My paranoia caused me to read everything I could find on the subject of international adoption. Once I felt comfortable with the subject matter, the next challenge was to become perceived as an expert in that area. The following is a list of suggestions that worked for me:

  • Membership organizations
    • They are a good way to be recognized by your peers.
    • They add to your credibility in the area.
    • They are a good source of referrals.
  • Publications
    • Contact Lawyers Weekly about submit-ting an article. They are usually eager to receive submissions by lawyers.
    • The ABA and your state bar association most likely publish continuing legal education materials and a number of other publications.
    • Domestic and international trade organizations also have publications. Join if you can.
  • Seminars
    • The ABA and your state bar undoubtedly have a number of seminars throughout the year. Contact the chair of one of the appropriate committees and ask if they will schedule a seminar with you as the speaker. Remember to inquire about seminars for particular bar sections—both those devoted to different practice areas (e.g., the Family Law Section) or practice types (e.g., the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division).
    • Attend trade association conventions and offer to speak at those events. In some cases the organization will cover your expenses.
Bite the Bullet

Once you make the decision to limit your practice to a particular area, you must be prepared to either turn down or refer to other attorneys paying clients in other areas. This is difficult to do, especially with clients with whom you have had an existing relationship. If possible, refer the client to other lawyers who share office space with you.

Niche Practice Areas
  • Traditional Areas of Practice
    • Tax
    • Probate and estate planning
    • International adoption
    • Trademark and patents
    • Copyright
    • Personal injury
    • Workers’ compensation
    • Criminal: state
    • Criminal: federal
    • Domestic relations
    • Immigration and nationality
    • Traffic
    • Corporate law
  • Unusual Areas of Practice
    • Representing Indian tribes as to gaming issues
    • Social Security disability
    • Elder law and asset protection
    • Sports and entertainment law
    • Franchise law
    • Foreign legal consultant
    • Construction law
    • Representation before the IRS

Rudy Rivera is the principal at Anderson & Rivera in Clayton, Missouri. He can be reached at . This article originally appeared as a presentation at the 2006 Missouri Bar Solo and Small Firm Conference, © 2006 Missouri Bar Association. Reprinted by permission.

Copyright 2007

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