March 30, 2017 Practice Points

Tips for Building a Practice Around Your Strengths

By Florence M. Johnson

“Jack of all trades and master of none.” This unflattering idiom speaks to our tendency to juggle so many diverse roles that we wind up diluting our abilities. Young attorneys may believe they’ve already avoided the pitfalls of multitasking simply by choosing their profession. However, lawyers can fall victim to this habit by trying to be all things to all clients.

Personal Goal Setting
As a young attorney, you may find it hard to imagine that you need to be concerned with who you are in the profession. In your mind, you know who you are: You’re a recent law school graduate with a newly minted law license, happily employed with an Am Law 100 firm. Or perhaps you’re a sixth-year associate about to establish your own firm, and you’re anxious about properly marketing your skills. Regardless of your experience, starting your own practice requires you to clearly identify the legal life that you expect to shape.

Developing a clear picture of who you are and thus of your target client requires an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. We all have favorite areas of the law, just as we all avoid certain topics as much as possible. So how do you go about building a practice that you love? Never fear—the Section of Litigation Practice Points are here. Ask yourself the right questions so you can determine where to put your energy and time.

  • Does the thought of an arraignment get you bounding out of bed in the morning?

  • Are you scared to death because someone at Christmas brunch asked you to look over Aunt Harriet’s will?

  • Do you love contracts but hate the thought of trial?

  • Do your eyes glaze over at the thought of a real estate question?

  • Does choosing between Chapter 11, 7, or 13 of the Bankruptcy Code make you giggle with excitement?

While it may be tempting at first to accept every client who walks in the door, trust your answers to the questions posed and let them guide your practice. Focusing your efforts where you want to work not only limits frustration but also allows you to continue developing expertise in your specialty.

Promoting Your Knowledge
Once your practice is up and running, continue to focus on your concentration. Strive to make yourself the go-to person in your area of the law by following these best practices:

  • Know your area of concentration like no one else. Read the blogs. Take the CLEs. Attend the ABA’s section conferences. Then bring that knowledge back to the office.

  • Make sure other lawyers know that you are the expert in your specialty. Make it abundantly clear that you are an authority on Chapter 7 Bankruptcy matters, for example, and don’t be shy about tooting your own horn. Social media is redolent with avenues for you to tout your firm and your personal achievements. Know your state’s rules and the Model Code of Conduct, and get out there to talk yourself up!

  • Go the extra mile in court. Show up prepared, and give other lawyers and courtroom personnel a reason to talk about you when you’re not there. Don’t underestimate the silent network at the courthouse: Clerks know which lawyers are good and which ones not to go near. They will talk, so make sure they’re saying good things about you and your work.

  • Join the professional organizations and ABA sections that can increase your knowledge base, and reach out to these contacts for networking and mentorship. Any lawyer can benefit from being in the company of other practitioners in the field. I have a colleague who sends a weekly email blast that details new cases in our practice field. While I do not love the 5:30 a.m. ding from my office device, I always appreciate the information she provides. She is in the network of lawyers I go to when I have a question about my area of practice.

In short, avoid the temptation to generalize, especially when you’re new to your own practice. Know who you are and what you’re good at, and stay current on developments in your specialty. When you establish yourself as an expert in your area and make sure everyone knows it, the clients you want will come to you.

Florence M. Johnson is the principal attorney at Johnson and Johnson, PLLC, in Memphis, Tennessee, and the chair of the Practice Points Subcommittee for the Section of Litigation’s Minority Trial Lawyer Committee.