In the early
I wanted to focus my practice on business and employment immigration. But Nashville wasn’t a large city with major international companies back then (although times have changed), and while the internet would be a good way for me to find work, my marketing guru father advised me to find a specialty where I could land good clients and stand out.
For most of the last 50 years, Nashville has been a sort of Silicon Valley for hospital companies. Physician immigration law was—and still is—one of the more challenging practice areas within immigration law. It was a practice area that didn’t have many competitors. And I believed I could charge more than “commodity” practice areas because of the complexity of the work and the high stakes for failing to deliver results to physician employer clients.
Today our firm has one of the largest physician immigration practices in the country, and we represent many of the largest hospital systems and physician staffing companies. So I feel comfortable revealing that back in the mid-’90s when I was marketing myself as a physician immigration expert, I didn’t actually have any clients and had virtually no experience.
How did I build a clientele? It wasn’t quick or easy, but I think discussing my story may be useful to those trying to break into niche areas when you don’t have the luxury of already working in a practice that has the work.
My main challenge early on was just becoming competent in physician immigration law. This meant reading everything I could find on the subject. Then I sought to identify the leading practitioners in the field and to reach out to them for advice and mentorship. These were the people writing on the subject and speaking at CLE programs. But my plan to master the subject was somewhat audacious—write the first book on the subject. This would provide a twofer—learning the subject by researching and writing about it and then getting to market the fact that “I wrote the book on the subject.” I wisely found two co-authors who knew more about the subject than I did and managed to persuade Matthew Bender (now LexisNexis) to publish the J-1 Visa Guidebook. That book has now been published annually for more than 20 years.
Sending a copy of the more than 1,000-page book to prospective clients gave a 20-something lawyer credibility. I’ve written four other books over the course of my career, including a second, more user-friendly, plain English book on physician immigration that I published through a publishing house I created for my law firm. Today, in the age of Amazon, you can produce a high-quality, great-looking book without an outside publisher. I used a company called Ramses House Publishing to help me with all the technical details of the project.
Finding a Place Within the Industry
Another important part of developing my niche clientele was to talk to people in the health-care industry and find the decision makers for hiring immigration lawyers. I learned that the doctors being recruited often had an outsized role in choosing the lawyer to handle their immigration work—which isn’t surprising given they have the most to lose when the process goes off the rails. On the employer side, decisions regarding retaining an outside immigration lawyer were made by:
- In-house counsel.
- Outside corporate and health-care counsel.
- In-house physician recruiters.
- Outside physician recruiters.
- Hospital CEOs and medical directors.
So, how does one reach these different audiences? First, the internet was critical. I wrote regularly on the subject for my website and a health-care immigration blog I created. On the website, we created a special section on health-care immigration, and we focused on search engine optimization for our niche practice. I also wrote regularly on physician immigration for print publications targeting health-care lawyers and the broader health-care market. And in recent years LinkedIn has been an incredibly useful market research tool for identifying these people.
I also joined organizations where I could find referral sources. Not many immigration lawyers are active in the ABA’s Health Law Section or the American Health Lawyers Association. I helped establish an immigration interest committee for the latter’s Labor and Employment Section. And I joined my state bar’s health law section.
I’ve found over the years that building your credibility within your profession and helping to build up your colleagues have done wonders for business development versus being a ruthless competitor who tries to tear down the competition. For example, for many years I’ve chaired an organization called the IMG Taskforce, which is an organization of physician immigration lawyers, and most of the leading practitioners in the field are members. Aside from getting good karma from helping your colleagues and mentoring up-and-coming lawyers, it’s helped solidify our brand in immigration law.
One of the missions of the IMG Taskforce is to advocate for friendlier immigration laws for physicians, and this has been a passion that has also helped build my name in the field. I’ve contributed to the drafting of a number of bills on physician immigration over the years, including several that have passed and become a part of the Immigration and Nationality Act. I also helped draft a federal agency’s physician immigration sponsorship program. Existing clients greatly appreciated that I am not only helping them navigate immigration law but also trying to help reshape it to work better for them.
For more than 20 years our firm has exhibited at trade shows attended by doctors and the decision makers I listed above. For example, we go to physician career expos where our hospital system clients exhibit and international physicians attend. We also exhibit at physician recruiter events and rural health conferences. Exhibiting at a trade show takes a lot of planning, and many firms make the mistake of choosing the wrong shows. But with proper research, budgeting
Finally, our firm recently began developing artificial intelligence-based apps in immigration law, including several focusing on physician immigration. For example, we have a new app that allows a physician recruiter to determine if a physician opportunity will likely qualify for visa sponsorship, something that we believe will be a game-changer in our field.
If there is a running theme here, it’s to focus on developing content demonstrating your expertise in your niche and finding the channels to reach the decision makers. Then give yourself ample time.