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Advice for Young Lawyers Interested in Developing a New Practice Area

Erin Rhinehart, Greg F Dorrington, Kristin A Binder, Chris McGhee, Lori A McMullen, Gage Zobell, Scott Borden Grover, Tracey Lesetar-Smith, Julie E. Merow, Brandon Harvard Riches, and David Laird Charles

Summary

  • Is there a need for attorneys in this practice area? This last point is often overlooked by lawyers passionate about an area of law.
  • Locate local reputable attorneys’ cases in your specific practice area to review their cases and filings.
  • Get organized on a business development and marketing plan for the new practice area.
  • As you move into a new practice area, it's important to have your eyes wide open for what you don’t know.
Advice for Young Lawyers Interested in Developing a New Practice Area
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Is it time to branch out? Maybe you’re moving to a new job or seeking to expand your current practice. Or maybe you’re just looking for a new challenge.

Whatever’s pushing your eagerness to expand, your colleagues are here for you with tips and tricks to help tackle a new practice area.

Consider Why You Want the Change, Your Interests, and Client Need

When thinking about developing a new practice area, consider

  1. why you want to change your practice area or develop a new one,
  2. what you’re interested in, and
  3. whether there’s a client need—now and by the time you’re ready to take on clients.

Each of these three things must line up to be successful. Are you developing a new practice area out of necessity or interest? Do you have agency over the decision to change; can you find something you enjoy while still using the skill sets you’ve already developed? Is there a need?

This last point is often overlooked by lawyers passionate about an area of law. However, it’s vital to remember that the practice of law is a business. And, like any business, you need to fill a need. To do so, you must understand (and anticipate) the various social, economic, political, and industry changes and challenges that may render your desired practice area hot (e.g., AI) or not (e.g., mortgage foreclosure).

Practice areas come and go. Don’t invest years of your career learning and honing an area of law that may be outdated or have run its course quickly.

–Erin Rhinehart, Ohio

Join a National Association and Engage with Other Practitioners

Be a joiner and stay curious! Early in my career, I was asked to develop an immigration practice. At the time, no one in our firm did that type of work. I didn’t have a mentor. And I didn’t know the first thing about immigration law. It was a different language, and I needed help quickly.

The first thing I did was join a national association and attend a conference with other newbies. After learning the basics, I joined the immigration section of my state bar. I stayed active in both, attended conferences and CLEs, met with seasoned practitioners, and absorbed as much as possible.

Along the way, I found that if you show genuine interest and actively engage with those in the practice area, people are willing to help and guide younger lawyers and even serve as unofficial mentors. But it takes work and commitment (and, yes, some of that time isn’t going to be billable).

If you immerse yourself, join the right groups, interact with the right people, and have the curiosity to learn continually, developing a new practice area can be exciting and rewarding. At least, that’s what I’ve found, and now immigration is a big part of my practice and an area I truly enjoy. So do it: Be a joiner and stay curious.

–Greg Dorrington, Montana

Take Advantage of Your Resources

When developing a new practice area, use available resources to learn everything you can. CLEs offering introductory information regarding the practice area you’re interested in are a great place to start.

If you’re interested in learning more, finding a local mentor who practices in the area you’re trying to expand into would be beneficial. A mentor can give you guidance and insight into a specific practice area and likely provide additional learning resources. Some states have mentorship programs through their respective state bar associations as well.

Otherwise, simply reaching out to local attorneys with expertise in the area you’re looking at expanding into and asking to sit down for a one-on-one is also an option. Most attorneys will be more than willing to share their expertise and knowledge; some may even be willing to share their standard forms.

When learning a new practice area, one of the more difficult parts can be knowing what documents to prepare for filing. If your state has a public access website for cases, there may be an option to search by area of law. It can be useful to locate local reputable attorneys’ cases in your specific practice area to review their cases and filings.

Of course, filings are case-specific, so exercise caution; however, reviewing public cases can allow a jumping-off point for you to develop your own forms and filings. A public-access website is also a place to find out when and where public hearings will be held, which is where you can learn how different attorneys and judges handle cases in the practice area you’re interested in.

–Kristin Binder, North Dakota

Embrace Your Experience

For young lawyers eager to carve out a niche in a new practice area, the key lies in finding the sweet spot between your passions and your practical experiences. Regardless of your stage in your legal career, your unique journey—shaped by your education, previous jobs, and even your family background—provides you with a distinctive perspective and expertise in certain areas of law. Remember, there's hardly any interest or industry that isn't governed by some form of regulation.

Embrace the wealth of experience you bring to the table. Use your personal and professional networks to your advantage, and allow your diverse background to serve as the cornerstone of your emerging practice area. Establishing this solid foundation helps build a dedicated client base and significantly mitigates the risks associated with expanding into new legal territories.

Once you've established a firm footing, branching out into additional practice areas becomes considerably more manageable. It also allows you to grow your practice with confidence and reduce risk.

–Chris McGhee, Maine

Build Your Expertise, and Be a Little Fearless

I would offer several steps of advice to a young lawyer hoping to develop a new practice area. First, knowledge is power. Try to find CLE or general education programs to build your knowledge in the new practice area. So many options are available through the ABA and other organizations for study-on-your-own options if an in-person CLE isn’t available or feasible. Depending on the new practice area, you may also need education on that particular industry and the specific legal practice area involved.

Second, find the existing experts in the practice area and try to build a mentor/mentee relationship. If the ‘expert’ is in your firm, that should be fairly easy to accomplish. If they’re outside your firm, I’d suggest developing a plan or checklist to contact and connect with the attorney directly. Meet them for coffee or lunch, pick up the tab, and see if you can build a relationship. If there isn’t an organic fit, try someone else to build a rapport with.

Third, get organized on a business development and marketing plan for the new practice area. Word of mouth and direct referrals are going to be your best resource for a niche practice area, so target a specific client or project (or several) where you can start to use your knowledge and build a referral network of clients to expand your marketing efforts as your new practice area develops.

Finally, be a little fearless and trust in your abilities!

–Lori McMullen, Wyoming

Join an Industry Organization

One good way to do this is by joining an industry organization (i.e., professional association) that represents the clients you want to develop and then serving in the industry organization. Put in the time, and don’t expect immediate results. You’ll develop a deeper skill set, understand your future clients' business, and cultivate a reputation that will generate clientele.

Some of my greatest success came only after more than five years of learning an industry, doing free work for an industry organization, developing relationships with committee members who are potential clients, and then seizing the moment when I’ve been given the opportunity.

–Gage Zobell, Utah

Command a Knowledge of the Law

To develop a new practice, I believe there are three key things you have to be willing and able to do.

First, you have to make the effort not only to understand the subject matter but also to command it. You don’t just know what title of the U.S. Code or CFR (or your state statute) applies; you know the individual laws and the regulations and can say them back to clients off the top of your head. You know how they’ve been interpreted and applied by courts and agencies, where the flexibility is and where it isn’t, and how you can best use your knowledge to advance your clients' interests successfully. Often, this means doing work on your own time. Fortunate are those who get paid to learn.

Second, you must exude confidence in your ability to practice in the area. Your target clients need to see and believe that their lawyer has the capability to represent them effectively so that your newness to the area isn’t a deterrent to your getting the engagement. Leveraging other parallel skills and experiences can help here as well.

Lastly, you have to get the word out. Today, there are a host of ways to do that, and you want to take advantage of all of those ways that are reasonably available to you, such as appearing on panels (shameless ABA meeting plug), conducting CLEs, posting on LinkedIn, and social media, and updating your website. Put up the billboard figuratively or (if it’s your area) literally.

–Scott Grover, Alabama

Learn the Landscape and Ecosystem

Starting a new practice area is like going out into the wild for the first time. You need to get your head around the landscape and the ecosystem.

The landscape is how big the pool of practitioners already is. Are you one of the first? Or will you add to a large group of practitioners? The ecosystem is how that business's industry works, what they need, and who the key players are.

A well-run landscape with an existing community of practitioners can be advantageous, as you can seek out mentors and colleagues to point you toward resources, networks, pitfalls to avoid, and, importantly, the basics of the ecosystem. You’ll be on your way with a bit of elbow grease, energy, and willingness to learn.

On the other hand, striking out as one of the first in a new world is exciting. In that case, your first stop is the ecosystem. Learn it extremely well. Figure out how the learnings of other existing practices could apply.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from more seasoned practitioners. You can serve as the subject matter expert on that ecosystem, and they could impart insight and guidance on how to get the practice area going, including developing a new client base and potentially giving you access to greater resources.

Once you’ve nailed down the landscape and ecosystem, get out there and meet people, write about it, listen extremely well, show genuine interest, and position yourself to be helpful. After all, your highest and best tool is yourself.

–Tracey Lesetar-Smith, Hawaii

Find Mentors and Opportunities to Gain Experience

Find people from whom you can learn a lot and who are willing to teach you and give you opportunities. You want to be in rooms with immense knowledge and experience but, most importantly, where the attorneys and other professionals allow young lawyers to excel and expose them to projects and tasks beyond solely observing others’ work.

 

Learning is doing, and you need environments where you can do the tasks required to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to become an expert in the area. Studying related statutes and regulations and using practice resources like those offered through the ABA’s practice sections is vital to developing your knowledge in the new practice.

–Julie Merow, West Virginia

Change Sometimes Requires Sacrifice

When I finished clerking with the Mississippi Supreme Court, I started at a small, three-person firm. I obtained a business law certificate in law school, fully believing this was my future practice area. The small firm I joined worked in this area and seemed like a great fit.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, and I was in the market for a new job after only nine months. I was open to anything and took a huge pay cut to learn a new area of law—immigration. I hustled for a year until the firm hired me as a full attorney with a better pay grade. Eventually, after a few years in this role, I was one of the highest-paid attorneys and a leader in the firm. After hitting the ceiling at that firm, I opened my own firm.

My advice for young attorneys is to be open to learning a new area of law and willing to sacrifice for it. It’s much easier to learn a new area of law and to take that pay cut early in your career. In my experience, it was completely worth it.

–Brandon Riches, Mississippi

Why Not? You Have the Knowledge and the Basic Tools

Why not? We have the tools. Weren’t we taught in law school how to find and read the law?

When we entered the practice, we took on the practice area at the firm or with the lawyer who hired us. But after a couple of years, we should think of stretching our horizons. Don’t be afraid or hesitate. Your practice may last as long or longer than mine—49 years and counting since I graduated. I’ve never been sorry when I stretched the horizon.

Almost all lawyers are willing to teach younger lawyers how to become involved in their practice area. I’ve not only read that repeatedly, but as I’ve tried to move into a new practice area, I’ve reached out to introduce myself to lawyers who practice in that area to ask questions and to ask for assistance. I’ve never found an attorney reluctant to spend time to educate me on the hows, whys, peculiarities, or ‘trade secrets’ of a practice area.

You won’t either.

As we move into a new practice area, it's important to have our eyes wide open for what we don’t know. Remind yourself frequently that we don’t know what we don’t know and that there’s a broad unknown out there. Be alert and ask questions all the time. You’ll bring new insight, new ways of thinking, and new ideas to the new practice area. Those will be to the advantage of your client.

What might a new practice area be? It could be a desire to do criminal defense to assist the federal indigent defense panel. You might like to try a bit of family law. It could be that you’d like to do some adoptions (one of the most rewarding things I can recall doing in my years of practice).

I assure you that you have the knowledge and the basic tools to take on a new practice area, and I encourage you to do so. Your life and practice will be richer for the experience.

–David Charles, Iowa

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