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GPSolo Magazine

GPSolo March/April 2024: Niche Areas of Law Practice

Finding Your Niche by Being Yourself

Emily Ann Albrecht

Summary

  • Finding your place in the law comes down to being unapologetically yourself and embracing whatever you are genuinely interested in.
  • For the author, a longstanding love of all things macabre led her to a niche in funeral law and mortuary litigation.
  • Figure out what your thing is, and then explore potential ways to incorporate that thing into your practice.
Finding Your Niche by Being Yourself
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Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. —Oscar Wilde

While the notion of being yourself might seem obvious at first blush, in reality, it is not so simple or easy to do, particularly in the context of practicing law. In fact, law school teaches us to do quite the opposite—to no longer be ourselves but rather to adopt our new role in society as attorneys. To think like a lawyer. To act like a lawyer (whatever that means). To look like a lawyer. In essence, to conform to a preconceived, longstanding caricature of what society expects a lawyer to be.

Think about it—how often are you introduced to someone in the form of “this is so and so, and they are an attorney.” Physicians aside, along with folks who may have incredibly unique and/or peculiar and interesting vocations (think astronaut, rocket scientist, lion tamer, psychic, exorcist, and so forth), most people’s professions are rarely so intertwined with their identities as to become a part of their introduction in this manner, as well as who they are perceived to be by society in general. We become that, “oh, I know someone who is a lawyer” person to whom our friends refer their other friends with legal questions, and—while well-intentioned—often without any idea what type of law we practice (i.e., the slim likelihood, if any, that we will have any idea how to answer said friend of a friend’s questions, much less for free).

While some of the stereotypes of what an attorney should look like have recently (although begrudgingly) begun to evolve in response to social changes, particularly those embracing diversity and inclusiveness, the professional culture within the practice of law has remained largely unchanged. From the onset of our legal careers, those of us who choose the path of working at a law firm are expected to do as we are told, to accept whatever files are dropped in our lap with a smile on our face, grateful for the work. By no means am I challenging that ritual stage of career development or negating the fact that some attorneys may be satisfied with this model of practicing law throughout the course of their entire career. Nor am I diminishing the value of such an experience, particularly during those formative years when we learn the practical skills of how to actually be a lawyer, which, as we all know by now, they do not teach us how to do in law school.

Indeed, from personal experience, I can attest to the value of having the opportunity to work on a variety of cases, particularly as a new attorney. I was fortunate enough over the course of my first several years of practicing as an insurance defense attorney to have a diverse caseload of matters, ranging from personal injury to product liability, premises liability, professional liability, construction defect, and asbestos defense. It certainly helped to have a mentor who was responsive when I vocalized my desire to maintain such a variety of cases in my workload, along with having a known penchant for handling the “weird” files, which I would gladly accept with open arms at every chance I got.

Some young attorneys may be fortunate enough to find a particular area of law that they are interested in practicing for the rest of their careers. For example, if product liability defense is your thing, great! But even within that area of practice exist ample opportunities to further narrow your focus to a particular subcategory of products that piques your interest. Following that path and gaining experience with cases involving specific types of products can help you distinguish yourself among product liability defense attorneys by carving out your niche practice in that area. This is particularly true as a young lawyer, when it can serve as an accelerated track for establishing yourself as the go-to person for those types of matters, which may, in turn, lead to great marketing and rainmaking opportunities in the form of publications, speaking/presentations at events, and an overall pathway to becoming a familiar presence in that particular product-specific industry, in addition to becoming known in the legal community for your niche practice area.

Finding My Niche in Mortuary Law

My own experience offers a great example of how this all plays out. One day, when I was a young insurance defense lawyer, I received an email from a partner at our firm seeking an associate to “do some research about dead bodies.” I immediately and enthusiastically volunteered to take on the assignment. Hands down, it was the most interesting potential task I had encountered in my first few years of practicing law. As I watched the clock and the day end without receiving a response, I solemnly accepted the unfortunate likelihood that someone else had responded more quickly than I, and I went home totally bummed out.

Much to my surprise, the partner walked into my office the next morning to let me know that she was giving me the assignment . . . because no one else had responded. Mind you, I did not care how or why I got it; I was overjoyed merely by the fact that I had! After she gave me some additional information about the case—it was about an alleged (emphasis on alleged) negligent embalming by our insured funeral home, funeral director, and embalmer—I got straight to work with the research and had a memo on her desk post haste.

Now is a good time for a brief pause to explain a bit more about my longstanding love of all things macabre. Ever since I was a young child, I have been fascinated with death. I was watching horror films and had my nose in books of scary stories while my friends were playing dress-up and idolizing Disney princesses. When I was in first grade and the other girls were asking for Barbies for their birthdays, I asked my parents for an anatomical model skeleton set. This was not the result of any interest in becoming a medical doctor or biologist; I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer as far back as I can remember. My grandfather, with whom I was very close, was an attorney, and I suspect much of my aspirations for a legal career can be attributed to my wanting to emulate his life. I spent countless hours fascinated by a taxidermized (yes, that is indeed the proper adjective, I triple-checked) piranha that my grandfather kept high up on a ledge of his enormous, never-ending wall of books. No matter how many times I begged him to let me touch it, he refused because, as he so patiently explained to me time and time again, “the teeth were too sharp,” and it was dangerous. My grandfather passed away a few years ago in his nineties, and now that very same piranha sits on a shelf in a glass display case next to a real human skull, along with various other oddities and curiosities in my living room near my own vast collection of books. And, in case you were wondering, he was right—the teeth are quite sharp. The point of all this is that death has always been my thing.

Back now to the important part of this article: how I found my niche practice area of funeral law and mortuary litigation. The partner at my firm was satisfied with my first memo, which soon led to many more research memos. I eventually found myself reading textbooks to learn about embalming techniques, interacting directly with our insured funeral director/embalmer, and finding an expert qualified to testify not only about the practice of embalming but also about the science of human decomposition. Ultimately, it led to the immensely exciting chance to second chair our weeklong jury trial, which resulted in a unanimous defense verdict.

After the defense verdict came back, amid our excitement, I remember feeling simultaneously saddened by the fact that the case was over—I had loved working on it so much. When the partner let out a sigh of relief and made it known that she never wanted to handle another funeral home case again, I excitedly told her that I wanted to handle as many of them as I could!

And the rest, as they say, is history. And by history, I mean hundreds of hours spent through the next several years making myself a familiar legal presence within the funeral industry, writing countless articles for death care professional publications, and joining local and national funeral directors associations and attending their annual conventions and expos, which eventually led to my becoming a speaker/presenter at those very same conventions. I was dead set (pun not intended, but appropriate) on becoming a funeral law attorney, no matter what it took. And with enough determination and hard work, I was able to do so—by being myself and pursuing a future in an industry centered around one of my true passions: death. My thing.

Being Unapologetically Yourself

I hope my experience inspires others to do the same in their own way. Ultimately, it comes down to being unapologetically yourself and embracing whatever you are genuinely interested in. Figure out what your thing is, and then explore potential ways to incorporate that thing into your practice. Maybe it will work out, maybe not. But you will never know if you do not at least try. Just be cautious if your interest is taxidermized piranha teeth because those are, as a wise man once told me, pretty sharp and quite dangerous.

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