As a young attorney, launching into private practice 40 years ago, I thought I could and should be able to handle everything. I was careful to make certain I learned enough about a practice area that I would competently represent my clients. That meant I purchased treatises and even paid older attorneys for consultations on specific issues. However, in thinking back, some of the highly technical things I took on, because I thought I had to be all things to all people, frighten me now. Securities registrations, what was I thinking?
The good thing about my early adventures is that I caused no harm and I learned about a lot of areas of the law. Most importantly, I learned how to spot issues that now prompt me to advise clients to seek other counsel.
But my advice to young attorneys—and others—is don’t do what I did. In the current market, a small firm or solo can no longer be all things to all people and remain competitive. You need to stand out, to differentiate yourself and market that niche where you have something to offer. Over time, I realized that I enjoyed doing zoning, land use, and municipal law, and focused my efforts in those areas. Interestingly, as my practice has matured, I have narrowed the areas in which I will counsel clients more as each year passes. Finding an area of practice you enjoy doing every day will also help you get out of bed in the morning.
How do you make yourself a place in a niche? It is hard and it takes time, but you can do it if you want. Obviously, getting a job with a firm that does the work you are interested in and will train you is a good way to start. Whether or not your firm will train you, you need to make a name for yourself in the niche. Begin by attending lectures, reading everything you can on the subject, and joining bar committees devoted to the specific area of the law. You will learn the area of the law and connect with others who may have conflicts or overflow business they would like to refer to that nice attorney they met at the bar association meeting.
If you limit your practice areas, attorneys who do other kinds of work will be less reluctant to refer their current clients to you, as they will not fear you will steal the client to do other work for that client. When an attorney refers to one of their clients, an unbendable rule must be to send the client back to that attorney for work outside the area of the original referral. Even if the client says they no longer like the other attorney and will never use them again, tell the client to hire someone else. The first time a referring attorney hears you took one of his or her clients for something else, will be the last time you get a referral from that attorney, and anyone else that attorney knows.
Once you have developed some expertise, start a blog and submit articles to the local bar journal. In a while, you will probably be invited to speak on the subject. In the early 2000s, I felt my practice needed a boost. I looked around for something that would create interest. Congress had recently passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). At that time perhaps half a dozen cases interpreted the new statute, which seeks to regulate local zoning laws impacting religious uses. I immediately realized that I could read about six cases and become an authority on the subject. I wrote about RLUIPA, and was soon invited to speak on the topic at a meeting in Washington. Over the years I have advised several clients on RLUIPA and my time investment has more than paid for itself.
Take advantage of sites like Avvo, where you should list your blogs, articles, and lectures. I am amazed at the number of lawyers who do not claim their free Avvo profiles. I did not get a 10 rating from Avvo, an AV rating from Martindale Hubbell, or a listing in Superlawyers for land use and zoning by sitting home thinking about what a good lawyer I am.
Other social media like LinkedIn, Twitter, and even Facebook can be a boost. Don’t post pictures of your breakfast, post links to your blog, articles, and successful decisions.
And, yes following the suggestions above, I have actually enjoyed the practice of law, for the most part, and made a pretty nice living practicing land use, zoning, and municipal law.
About the Author
Steven M. Silverberg is a member of Silverberg Zalantis LLP in Tarrytown, New York which focuses its practice in land use, zoning, and municipal law and related litigation. Contact him on Twitter @smsilverbergesq or at firstname.lastname@example.org.