We have all met that potential client. The one who will not take “no” for an answer. The one who demands that you produce a miracle. In my case, that consultee was legendary Olympic track and field coach Brooks Johnson.
I was first introduced to Coach Brooks by my close friend from undergrad, five-time Olympic medalist sprinter Justin Gatlin, who had recently started training with him. The coach, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, appeared to take a liking to me as a fellow scholar of the law, and insisted on calling me “counselor” at all times, even at track meets I attended regularly, to support Justin. A few months after our initial meeting, Coach Brooks reached out to me with a request that I assist one of his athletes with a sports visa. At that point in my career, I had four years of legal experience, less than one of which was in immigration, so I had to confess that I had no idea how to do a sports visa case. “Well then I trust you will figure it out,” said Coach Brooks. And with that challenge, delivered by a coach who had six decades of experience pushing athletes beyond their self-imposed limitations, my career as a sports immigration lawyer began.
The miracle in this equation was that I, a junior lawyer who had recently transitioned from IPOs on the London Stock Exchange to US immigration matters, could figure out how to handle one of the most complex and subjective visa categories. Coach Brooks’ confidence in me was not misplaced; I delivered a winning P-1A petition, and in the process learned that the plain language of the statute and regulations was a poor fit for the industry practices of a single-athlete Olympic sport. Because the law was written largely with major league sports and athletes in mind, preparing a petition for a track and field athlete involved tedious documentation, explanation of the organization and governance of the sport, the hierarchy of competitions, and unusual practices specific to that sport, such as blended competitions in which collegiate athletes and other amateurs would line up alongside established professionals like Usain Bolt on the track. To effectively present my arguments, I had to take a deep dive into the sport, and develop a personal understanding of the rules, statistics, and other relevant data. The pursuit of this knowledge became a personal passion, as did attending track meets.
In August 2013, I accompanied Justin Gatlin and his training group to the World Championship, which was hosted that year in my country of origin, Russia. It was not, by design, a marketing trip. I was there mostly to support my friend, serve as a translator to his parents and members of his training group, and spend some time with family. However, the visibility I gained among athletes on that trip was a critical turning point in my career. Justin made a few introductions and snuck me into the practice field. I returned from Moscow with a dozen clients for sports visas.
The rest, as they say, is history. For someone who attended a sports-obsessed Southeastern Conference school for undergrad and already loved sports, focusing on sports immigration was an ideal opportunity to marry my personal and professional passions. I realized that my in-depth knowledge of track and field provided me with a unique advantage, both in terms of the presentation of legal arguments and for marketing. Athletes started to recognize me, and in lieu of my difficult-to-pronounce foreign name, began calling me “the sports visa lawyer.” In the years that followed, my practice transitioned from a general immigration law firm to one that is focused on sports immigration matters, primarily representing track and field athletes and coaches.
Many attorneys are, understandably, hesitant to hyperspecialize. Concerns regarding whether the niche practice will take off, and whether it will detract from the attorney’s ability to market him or herself in other areas are common and not entirely misplaced. Here are additional tips for attorneys considering a niche practice in any field of law.
Selecting the niche
The selection of a niche should take into account a variety of factors, the most important of which is the personal interests of the attorney who will take the lead on developing the practice. Niche practices are passion-driven projects, and marketing efforts are certain to be most effective if the attorney’s subject matter expertise is accompanied by his or her authentic interest in and connection to the field.
As with any other business opportunity under consideration, a market survey is advisable. Consider whether the market is oversaturated or if there is room for you. Consider whether you have or can develop the skills, relationships, and other resources to secure your advantage over competitors. When I undertook this analysis, I found that while a handful of other attorneys focused primarily or exclusively on sports nationally, none had a specialization specifically in track and field, and I knew that my established personal connections in that sport would provide my competitive advance.
Particularly if you work on a flat-fee basis, do not neglect to consider the potential profitability of your chosen endeavor. I recommend preparing a micro business plan, complete with projected profit-and-loss statements for the niche. Your niche practice will be an opportunity cost to your other work, so it is important to understand the profit margins for both, and compare them to determine whether pursuing the niche makes business sense at all. Another factor in the financial calculus is your target clients’ ability to pay. One of the challenges in my practice, for example, is that track and field athletes are woefully under-compensated, with most athletes ranked in the top 10 in the world making less than $15,000 per year from the sport. As a result, even within my chosen niche, only a certain segment of athletes can afford my services. Because at this time I have little to no competition, there are enough financially capable clients to support my practice, but if other attorneys enter the field, I may need to pivot or diversify.
Non-traditional fields may require you to step away from the conventional wisdom about marketing. Do not fear trading your suit and stuffy lawyer image for a more approachable persona, if that resonates with your target audience better. I do most of my in-person marketing at sporting events, dressed in compression tights and a t-shirt. For a VIP touch, all my sports immigration clients, as well as agents and other referral sources, have my cell phone number, and reflecting the demands of their busy schedules, I make myself available to them outside of regular business hours.
Another ace in your marketing deck is the ability to establish yourself as a fixture in the industry you serve. The more organically you fit into the industry landscape, the more legitimacy you have in the eyes of key individuals within the field. This requires striking a delicate balance between marketing when it is appropriate and knowing when to back off, such that your presence is organic and never intrusive. In my experience, the most effective marketing does not feel like a sales pitch at all.
If you add value to the industry by well-timed and strategically placed content, the clients will seek your expertise on their own. For example, I keep abreast of the sporting events, such as the World Relays, World Championships, or the Olympics that could lead to eligibility for sports visas. I attend those events and engage with key people without ever being first to mention what I do. At the same time, I publish content on my social media that explains what sorts of achievements at these events might qualify an athlete for a visa or permanent resident status. In addition to keeping me from running afoul of the rules of ethics concerning solicitation, this method helps elevate my stature in the industry without seeming like a nuisance at events where hiring an immigration lawyer is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Niche practices are not a substitute for competence in the broader field(s) of law in which you practice. On the contrary, having a command of the broader legal field will ensure that you present as someone who has chosen a niche practice, not someone who was forced into a narrow area of law because of a lack of mastery of the fundamentals. To maintain your edge, continue to develop both your expertise in the focus area as well as in your field more generally. Such an approach will have the added benefit of producing cross-marketing opportunities. For example, many of the athletes for whom I have obtained sports visas have US citizen partners. In addition to pathways to residency through sport, I can market marriage-based options to this demographic.
The decision to follow Coach Brooks’ leap of faith in me and build on the opportunity has resulted in a level of professional satisfaction that I could have never imagined possible. Having established my own career in sports immigration, I have dedicated the last few years to sharing this field with others. To that end, I organized the nation’s first and only CLE conference dedicated solely to sports immigration. The inaugural conference had over 100 attendees, and the program is now in its third year. Because sports immigration is simply not a career option that is traditionally discussed at any law school, I have also spoken at a number of law schools on the topic, in hopes of recruiting the next generation of sports immigration practitioners.
Challenge completed, Coach Brooks.
About the Author
Ksenia Maiorova is a sports immigration attorney based in Orlando, FL. She is the founder of the Sports Immigration Law Conference, a co-author and editor of “Immigration Options for Artists, Entertainers & Athletes, Third Edition,” the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s treatise on extraordinary ability immigration. Contact her on Twitter @sportsvisalaw.