United States: Stake Your Claim: Creating A Niche Legal Practice

Stake Your Claim

Like the business pioneers before them, lawyers can benefit from finding new ground of their own.

If you are particularly interested in this issue's theme, it is likely because you are responsible for helping attorneys with their business development and marketing initiatives. You are continually looking for fresh ideas, best practices and other tips that will give you an edge and propel your ever-busy attorneys to new heights. Given the competition for attorneys' time and attention, wouldn't you love to find a way to help them direct and sustain their business development efforts amidst pressures to bill +1800 hours a year, meet complex client demands, serve on firm committees, and have a bit of personal time? There is a way, and it's by helping busy lawyers focus the time they spend on business development through the art and science of building a niche law practice.

What Is a Niche Practice?

A niche practice comes about from building expertise in a distinct area of law or industry segment. A good definition of the word niche is "a place to stand," and that is a good way to think of a niche law practice. When an attorney chooses to narrow their focus, they is stake out a place of their own to grow into, be known for, and deeply explore and master. The key is to select a niche practice with strong economic potential in an area that is trending upward, then plant a flag and become the leading expert in that field. Done right, a niche practice is a way to capitalize on trends in society or business that affect attorneys' clients and offer the opportunity to grow new business.

The Importance of Trends

Trends are a critical part of the niche practice discussion and key to successfully focusing marketing and business development activities. Throughout history, trends have presented both the greatest opportunities and greatest risk for businesses and professionals. Miss a trend, and it could mean losing market share, or worse. For example:

  • Kodak, once the world's undisputed leader in photographic technology, missed the digital trend and filed for bankruptcy
  • The music industry has been gutted by the trend toward digitization that it first ignored and then resisted.
  • Believe it or not, Blockbuster, the once ubiquitous video store chain, had the opportunity to buy Netflix 16 years ago. But it stuck with brick and mortar, due dates, and late fees instead!

On the flip side, anticipating a trend and getting in front of competitors can produce untold rewards. For example:

  • At a time when few had heard of microcomputers, Bill Gates and Paul Allen formed Microsoft in an effort to bring a computer to every desktop and every home.
  • A pioneer of the gig economy, Uber has redefined transportation. Tap a button, get a ride.

Spotting and acting on emerging trends is how successful companies have always captured market share and spurred innovation. Lawyers could take a page from their book. Gone are the days when law firms could rest on the laurels of past success and give little thought to market position and business development. Today, innovative lawyers and law firms are emulating forward-looking businesses — responding quickly to emerging technologies and markets, and positioning themselves as the go-to choice when a nascent industry takes off. Take Cozen O'Connor's COpilot site, for example, which provides tools and insights for entrepreneurs and emerging companies.

Legal Marketers as Trend Spotters

Legal marketers are perfectly positioned to spot trends and conduct the analysis to suggest new niche practices. Believe it or not, we have a leg up on our lawyers in this area, simply because we are not lawyers! We are marketers. We are interested in social media and new technologies. We are engaged in client and industry research, and we think about things like buying behavior and motivation. By thinking about the big picture and the areas of law our firms practice, we can bring concrete and actionable trend analyses to our attorneys.

Like most things in life, spotting trends comes more naturally with practice. To improve your trend spotting skills, make a habit of checking the BrainReserve website by Faith Popcorn (yes, that is her real name!). Studying Popcorn's "17 Trends" list, for example, and contemplating how any one of those trends could impact a particular practice of law can get the creative juices flowing.

Test Your Skills

Here is an exercise to test your ability to generate a new niche law practice. Pair one of the trends in the left column with a practice in the right column and create a niche practice. Keep in mind that a niche practice can be targeted toward an industry, a segment of the population or even a location.

Trends Practices
(Eve)olution* Insurance Recovery
Online Everything Real Estate
Wearable Tech Tax, Trusts & Estates
Drones Privacy
Climate Change Intellectual Property
Sharing Economy Class Action
Aging America Labor & Employment

* According to Faith Popcorn, the way women think and behave is impacting business, causing a marketing shift away from a hierarchical model to a relational one.

Here's an example to get you going:

Aging America + Tax, Trusts & Estates = niche practice tailored to baby boomers in need of business succession planning services.

Choosing a niche is by no means a new concept – lawyers have been doing it for a long time. You no doubt have examples in your own firm, but here are a few interesting practices we found:

  • Canna Law Group, launched in 2010, is a team of business attorneys focused on corporate, compliance, intellectual property and consumer product issues impacting the cannabis industry.
  • LeClairRyan's Annapolis-based drone practice is headed by a former flight instructor and a former American Airlines pilot.
  • BakerHostetler was a pioneer in the area of data privacy and has bolstered that practice with the well-read Data Privacy Monitor blog. Today, the firm's privacy attorneys often focus on niche areas, such as one partner who focuses on privacy and data protection issues within cloud computing.

Minting Niche Practice Lawyers

In our experience, lawyers who are poised for partnership and newly elected partners are ideal candidates for choosing and developing a niche. Hungry to develop a book of business, they are often open to new ideas, are looking for a place to stand and call their own, and are likely comfortable with the online world, which is the ideal place to project niche expertise.

The trick is to be a student of trends and astute about analyzing what trends are poised to create a groundswell, thereby causing changes in business, regulation, consumer behavior and demand. The many successful rainmakers we have known over the years all have one thing in common: an interest in and aptitude for seeing the next big thing — in their clients' industries, the political climate or in consumer preferences. And, they haven't been afraid to reinvent themselves time and again.

In a marketplace where choices are plentiful, lawyers and law firms must tune in to trends or risk going the way Blockbuster.

Originally appeared in The Legal Marketing Association (LMA)'s Strategies Magazine.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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