As I stood on the basketball court of the elementary school playground, playing “HORSE” with Timmy (his name has been changed for confidentiality), I grappled with an age-old question: Was I doing enough? Could I do more? Timmy was a second-grader living with Down syndrome who loved playing basketball, would school me on the court, and found motivation for school in the sport and engaging with his typical peers. I had worked with Timmy for a year as his one-to-one aide while I was facing a looming college graduation . . . and a decision. I thought I would follow in my aunt’s footsteps teaching special education. I loved the time I spent at this school—a charter school that took full inclusion to new heights, where all students were included and provided the tools and supports they needed to have an equal opportunity to succeed.
Timmy was successful and joyful in his educational environment—but at any other school, he may not have been so lucky. I thought of all the other students who were not afforded the opportunities Timmy received. As I grew fonder of Timmy and his peers, I learned more about the inherently unequal and segregated public system the United States has built. Today, approximately one out of every ten public school students is identified as having a disability, yet our public education system fails to provide these students equal opportunities or inclusion in their community. I quickly realized that I needed to do more.
At that moment I knew I could make a bigger impact, that I could help these students in a unique way by advocating for them and for change. What better way to dream about making a difference than going to law school? I credit Timmy, his family, and all the amazing staff I worked with for the path I found myself on and now am in love with.
Think Outside the Box: Walk Away from Traditional
In 2014 my business partner, Vickie Brett, and I were practicing special education law in separate small law firms in Orange and San Bernardino Counties, California. At the time, we had a broader outlook on the impact we wanted to have; we didn’t just see our roles as “special education” attorneys but rather zealous civil rights advocates who could make a real impact. We were not satisfied with the status quo and helping one family at a time, as gratifying as it might be.
When Vickie and I started Selogie and Brett in June 2014, we had one thing in mind—think outside the box. We frequently ask, “why not?” when deciding a new direction to take our firm. Just because something has been done the same way for years does not mean that we must do it that way. Our clients require individualized education plans and need us to think outside the box to come up with solutions for their cases—so why wouldn’t we do the same with our law practice?
From our office décor to our retainer agreements, no part of our practice screams “traditional,” and we like it that way. In business planning and designing company morale and culture, we often say, “if Google does it, why can’t we?” We have built our practice on the philosophy that we are building a business and not just a law firm. We regularly consult with small businesses and not just law firm partners in developing, building, and growing our business. When we meet with young attorneys curious about starting their own law practice, we encourage them to speak with a diverse group of small business owners and law firm owners to figure out what works for them.
To Niche or Not to Niche? It Was Never a Question
When we first registered the business, we knew that we wanted to develop a niche law practice with a single driving focus—as this was our mission in going out on our own. Although we saw a need for advocacy across the spectrum of disability rights, we felt it was important to narrow our focus to the rights of children living with disabilities, specifically as their rights relate to their education. This very niche field has allowed us not only to specialize and become experts in this field, but also has allowed us to practice our philosophy of thinking outside the box. We are constantly evolving the way we practice and looking toward the next thing we can do to improve.
Many areas of law are very specialized, requiring an extensive knowledge and practice experience for a lawyer to be considered an “expert.” We felt it imperative to become experts if we were to make as big of an impact as we dreamed. By spreading ourselves too thin with other practice areas, we feared that we would never rise to the level of expertise we sought. We often say that we eat, sleep, and breathe this world and do not consider it to be “work” in the traditional sense.
There is often a perception that being a lawyer should be hard and must be all-encompassing, that lawyers cannot have a life outside of work until they retire. We throw out that perception along with all the misperceptions of people living with disabilities—we decide what our path will be and feel that the law does not have to be stuffy and traditional. You can have it both ways—love what you do and become successful at it.
Round Pegs Have More Fun
We structure our services differently than most attorneys and think more about the purpose behind our work (and not at our hourly rate). We focus on a person-centric service model, and with our specialization, we can give our clients just that. We can be there in their time of need and support them throughout the legal process and after—our goal is not just to make them whole again but to transition them moving forward. We console and counsel them and are often seen as “counselors” in every sense of the word.
Our work does not stop at our niche legal practice, however. We took our work a step further and created a legal nonprofit organization focused on educating families and the community on their rights and providing pro bono legal aid for low-income families. The nonprofit side of our work allows for even more flexibility in working with community organizations and parent groups to serve our greater goal of impacting change.
Developing a law practice that is unique, different, and outside the box can and should be done. Millennials are changing the world, from technology to how businesses operate, and law practices should change with the times. These ideas drive our encouragement of young attorneys ready to do something different, challenge the norm, and follow the dreams that led them to law school in the first place.
Facing Pitfalls Head-on
Law school is not business school, so in developing a law practice, it is important that attorneys do the legwork to ensure they run their firm like a business first, law firm second. This concept allows the business to thrive, operate at its best, and truly serve the clients it is meant to serve.
As with all businesses, some pitfalls may arise in creating a unique and niche law practice. The biggest challenge most niche practices face is generating clients to sustain the practice—especially if serving a low-income population.
The key to facing this challenge head-on is the expertise that can be built from specialization. Many attorneys fail to qualify themselves as experts in their field, but this expertise can be a driving factor in generating clients who may be deciding between one practice and another.
We have not had to worry so much about clients choosing us over other firms because very few firms like ours exist. Making the practice unique can give a firm this leg up that will make it stand out above others. Our biggest challenge is finding those clients who do not even know we exist, or that they have a problem to be solved.
Attorneys often limit their networking to attorney-based functions and events that provide CLEs; unfortunately, this limits the pool of potential clients. Instead, diversifying networking and outreach will expand the client pool. Because we work with school-age children and their parents, we network and outreach with nonprofits, disability rights groups, pediatricians, social workers, therapists, educators, and anyone else whose line of work may touch these students. From there we can generate an entirely new and diverse pool of clients—especially ones that may not have even known our type of practice exists.
But you do not need to stop there. Putting yourself and your firm in the mind of other professionals is just the first step. With a niche practice, it is important for those you network with to understand and be able to identify when someone may need your type of firm—so that they can refer to you each and every time.
Through our nonprofit, we conduct presentations, trainings, and workshops for community organizations, other businesses, law firms, and more to educate those who work with our demographic of potential clients about when these potential clients may come across their desks—and what to do when this occurs. We help identify crossover issues that they can look out for with their own clients or contacts.
What Are You Waiting For?
If you are starting your own practice—and possibly a niche practice—don’t be afraid to think outside the box, think of the firm as a business, and set aside the norms. There is no one-size-fits-all way to practice law. That is why we call it the “practice” of law after all!