Some lawyers find their niche, and discover both benefits and drawbacks to serving a particular market. Specialization allows legal practitioners to hone in on areas they’re passionate about, polishing their expertise while experiencing the fulfillment that comes from meeting specific client needs. At the same time, they encounter the challenges that come with staying small and focused. Our roundtable discussion brings attorneys from diverse areas together to discuss the potentials, advantages and issues that come with offering specialized services.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco, CA and is a member of the Law Practice Today Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nickgaffney.
|Megan Zavieh (MZ) – Megan is an ethics defense lawyer representing California lawyers at her firm, Zavieh Law. Megan is also the creator of The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide, an interactive membership website providing a first-of-its-kind self-defense handbook for ethics defense, sample document library, and forum for self-represented attorneys to connect with each other.|
|Michael Stephenson (MS) – Michael is the founder and senior attorney of Bay Area Bicycle Law, a firm devoted to representing injured cyclists and promoting bicyclist safety. An experienced litigator, he started his career trying misdemeanor cases as a public defender in 2007. Michael has been selected as one of the “10 Best Personal Injury Attorneys” in California by the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys, and is a member of the National Trial Lawyers’ prestigious “Top 40 Under 40,” of the “Million Dollar Advocates Forum,” and of “Lawyers of Distinction,” which limits its membership to the top 10% of attorneys in the United States.|
|Anne P. Mitchell (AM) – Anne was one of the first fathers’ rights attorneys in the United States. A graduate of Stanford Law School and retired professor of family law, she has helped thousands of fathers and their children to be able to maintain an ongoing relationship after the disuniting of the family, both through her private practice, and through her book, “They’re Your Kids Too: The Single Father’s Guide to Defending Your Fatherhood in a Broken Family Law System.” She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where among other things she oversees the website DadsRights.org, and the Facebook group “FathersRights.”|
|John Montgomery (JM) – John’s work as an international advocate for the benefit corporation and the emergent impact economy inspired him to incorporate California-based Lex Ultima as two affiliated benefit entities in 2017. Before founding Lex Ultima, John founded a successful Silicon Valley law firm, now Montgomery & Hansen, LLP, in 2003 and was previously a partner or attorney at prominent Bay Area law firms. He is the president-elect of the Benefit Company Bar Association and serves on the advisory boards of B Lab Europe, the Purpose of the Corporation project and several benefit corporations.|
|Rakesh Amin (RA) – A managing partner at Amin Talati Upadhye in Chicago, Rakesh is a passionate business and litigation attorney. He represents major brands and other clients in the food, beverage, drug, dietary supplement and cosmetic industries, advising and litigating in areas including advertising, FDA and USDA compliance, intellectual property and more.|
NG: At what point did you decide to specialize and what steered you towards the niche you practice?
MZ: I spent many years practicing in BigLaw, and while there were many positive aspects of the work and camaraderie, I felt disconnected from the real world. I was not helping individuals who needed me. It was also far from my original career plan, which was to work with lawyers who needed psychological or psychiatric assistance. Then someone very close to me needed help in an ethics case, and I was prevented from helping because of my employment in BigLaw. I was very frustrated. But then everything aligned for me to guide me into this niche—the economy tanked, BigLaw began to scale way back and I saw my work rapidly declining. My friend still needed my help, and when I was free of outside employment, I could give it. I went to State Bar Court and saw that it was not just my own client who needed help, but there were many self-represented lawyers defending themselves against ethics charges who needed assistance. A light bulb went off, and I realized that I could still help my original target demographic, but as a lawyer instead of a psychiatrist.
MS: I originally got the idea from a close friend who was in a motorcycle crash and hired a lawyer who specialized in motorcycle cases. My friend was unhappy with his lawyer and said he thought I would be a better advocate on behalf of motorcyclists. That gave me the idea to specialize—but as a life-long cyclist, both for recreation and for commuting, I knew that I wanted to instead become a cyclist attorney, and so I founded Bay Area Bicycle Law, which specializes exclusively on bike accident cases.
AM: I actually was involved in fathers’ rights before going to law school; I had founded an organization in western New York to deal with some proposed legislation. Once I moved away for law school, it was my intention and expectation to not be involved in fathers’ rights again—I was a single mother at the time, so I figured I’d go into a big firm to support my daughter and myself. However, once you get involved in a niche that needs advocates, and you know that you can make a difference, it’s very hard to walk away. I started a fathers’ rights BBS from my student housing at Stanford, then founded a national fathers’ rights group—by which I really mean a child’s right to have a relationship with both parents. Especially at the time, in the early ‘90s, that meant representing fathers.
JM: About 10 years ago, I realized that the doctrine of shareholder primacy—the prevailing corporate law or custom that the corporation exists solely to maximize stockholder welfare—rendered the current global economic system unsustainable. Without a social and environmental conscience, corporations are prone to antisocial behavior that may ultimately render the planet uninhabitable. After the advent of the benefit corporation, I was called to focus on helping traditional corporations become benefit corporations. For me, it is a matter of life and death. Personally, I want my kids and any future grandchildren to inherit a habitable planet. I need to do my part to help the tens of millions of corporations on the planet become good global citizens as quickly as possible. It is our best chance for stopping human-induced climate change.
RA: Upon graduating from law school in 1995, shortly after the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was signed by President Clinton in October 1994, I decided to focus on the nutritional supplement industry. As a pharmacist by background, I understood that consumers wanted an alternative to drugs. I believed the outlook for the supplement industry to be strong with sustainable growth, and that it would allow me to build on the food, beverage, cosmetic, drug, advertising, patent, trademark and competition laws that I wanted to practice. Most of all I enjoyed the subject of nutrition and had a strong desire to be involved in the sector.
NG: Describe the essence of your niche practice.
MZ: I represent lawyers facing ethics investigations and prosecutions. I have always tried to reach the self-represented lawyers and empower them to defend themselves with knowledge and tools typically held only by the bar counsel. I also provide full scope representation to lawyers who choose not to defend themselves, and ethics counseling to lawyers in practice.
MS: Most of our work is on behalf of bicyclists who have been injured by negligent drivers, but our cyclist attorneys do also handle a few road defect and product defect cases each year. Lately, our cyclist attorneys have been working more and more on behalf of cyclists injured by drivers for rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft.
AM: The bottom line is that I believe strongly that children deserve to have a relationship with both parents, and, as they get older, deserve to define that relationship on their own terms, not based on views that have been spoon-fed to them by one parent or the other. As a woman going through the divorce process, I was horrified by how much power I wielded in the family law arena. For decades it was very easy for a woman to get a man pushed out of the lives of their children. I was able to help my clients to once again become more involved in their children’s lives after divorce, which was in turn so much better for the children.
JM: I help boards of directors and management of traditional public and private corporations become comfortable with the benefit corporation. I help them overcome their fear about the new form until they are inspired to change. Then, I help them design their governance architecture and become benefit corporations.
RA: I creatively help nutritional companies achieve success by building clarity on the laws and freedoms to manufacture, label, advertise and sell dietary supplements.
NG: What are the advantages of focusing on a niche market?
MZ: I really know my area inside and out. When I was not in a niche, I knew a great deal about the work I did, but I didn’t know the details as intimately as I do now. Another tremendous advantage for me is that all of my clients are lawyers. This helps me in my marketing, my networking and my client relationships.
MS: Foremost, we enjoy coming into work each day confident that we are providing the best representation to our injured cyclist clients that they could possibly find anywhere in California. Specializing exclusively on bike accidents allows us to always be on top of the most cutting-edge techniques and changes in the law. In addition, we believe that cycling is crucial for combatting climate change and improving public health. We enjoy being able to support that.
AM: By becoming an expert in one very specific, and often under-served, area, you become one of the go-to people for that area of practice. While in the beginning it may be tempting to be a one-stop shop for all sorts of practice areas, in order to get in as much business as possible, by concentrating on one thing, and doing it very well, you will, in my experience, have a much more satisfying practice. Plus, as you become known as the go-to lawyer for that area of practice, you will attract better and better clientele, and be able to accept—and reject—cases based on your own criteria.
JM: By being focused on who you are, what you stand for and what you practice, you can attract exactly the clients you want to work with. Niche practices tend to get lost in full service firms. Being dedicated to a niche practice allows a firm to present itself fully and uncompromisingly on its website.
RA: It is less time-consuming and costly to create relationships and become relevant if you’re in a niche market. Also, larger general practice law firms have indicated a higher amount of trust and confidence referring to our firm with a narrow focused area of practice. Lastly, being in a niche creates a higher level of accountability to our referral sources and clients, which has made us stronger and better partners to work with.
NG: How do your clients benefit from your area of concentration?
MZ: More than anything, they benefit from my complete focus on my area of practice. No lawyer wants to know all the rules of their state’s attorney discipline system, to read the latest cases from their ethics tribunal or keep up with opinions from the state’s ethics committee. Lawyers want to be out practicing their area of law. That is why they have me. They can call me when something comes up, and odds are good that I am going to know the current state of the law on that particular ethics issue.
MS: Our cyclist attorneys have pretty much seen it all when it comes to bicycle accident cases, so it is likely that every issue in a new client’s case is going to be something that we have a substantial amount of experience with. We tend to see the same injuries, the same insurance coverage issues, the same liability and causation issues, and the same bogus defenses/allegations from insurance companies over and over, whereas a general practice personal injury attorney is going to find new and unexpected issues every time they move from a slip and fall, to a dog bite, to a car crash, to a boating accident, etc. Additionally, we strive to benefit the entire Bay Area cycling community by donating to and supporting bicycle coalitions such as the California Bicycle Coalition, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the Marin Bicycle Coalition, the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, and others.
AM: If you are an expert in a niche area, then almost by definition it means that you are one of the few people with the knowledge and expertise necessary to ensure the best outcome for your client.
JM: Being precisely focused allows my clients to find me easily. It also allows me to focus on what I love to do and gives me time to deepen my expertise.
RA: We have counseled on compliance, IP and litigation issues related to almost every nutritional ingredient and category many times over for different brands. This focus enables us to see issues and opportunities from different angles and be more proficient in our counseling, and enhances our ability to creatively help our clients get ahead of the curve and achieve their goals.
NG: Is marketing a niche practice different from marketing a general practice?
MZ: I have not been a solo lawyer in a general practice, but they seem very different. I market solely to lawyers, and my services are valuable to all lawyers. So my market is the profession. While I do need to reach a subset of lawyers who are actually facing ethics investigations, many of my clients come from the general population of lawyers who are not currently facing a crisis but rather have discrete issues or want ongoing ethics counseling. In a general practice, the market is not often a demographic like a profession, but more frequently people from all walks of life who are facing a particular type of problem—being sued in a real estate matter, needing help with immigration forms, battling a tax issue, etc. There you have to target the problem, whereas I target the profession.
MS: Definitely. We are able to market to a much smaller subset of the community—cyclists—which allows us to use our marketing budget much more efficiently.
AM: Absolutely. Marketing a niche practice allows you to finely tailor your message, as you are looking to appeal to a very narrow population rather than trying to cast a wide net and see who you catch.
JM: Marketing a niche practice is so much easier in a stand-alone, dedicated firm. General practice marketing generally defaults to the least common denominator and niche practices can often appear less important. Having a dedicated firm gives a niche practice top billing.
RA: Our marketing approach directly hits industry-focused companies, media outlets, trade associations and financiers looking to buy and sell nutritional-related companies.
NG: What advice do you have for someone looking to create a successful niche practice?
MZ: Find something you really love doing, because the narrowness of a niche will be very confining if you don’t love it. If you really want to be successful in the long run, look for an area that is not too crowded with other practitioners. It is also helpful if there is an older bar, meaning that as you grow your knowledge and practice, the competition is likely to be retiring. Then learn everything you can about your niche. Leave no stone unturned, and keep learning every day. Become the absolute expert in your field, and the practice will thrive.
MS: Spend a good deal of time thinking about what niche you want to go into, and make sure it is something you are truly passionate about, because this will likely be what you are working on and thinking about every single day for many years.
AM: First and foremost, think about what you really care about in terms of practice. What subject matter are you really passionate about? Where can you see yourself really making a difference? You have to have a passion for the area, or you not only won’t succeed, but you will burn out. You have to really want to eat, sleep and breathe the subject. Once you have identified such a niche, then go after it with all you’ve got, and make sure that everybody knows that it is your specialty.
JM: If you love your practice, are entrepreneurial and have a knack for running a business, start a niche firm when you have a good reputation and client base. You will wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
RA: Be passionate, and understand it takes time, patience and requires a lot of heart, grit, and grind. Focus on positive, long-term and enjoyable relationships with your team members, clients and referral sources. If objective facts indicate a niche focus will work for you, and if you truly want it, then believe in your assessment and work hard to achieve your goals.