Be the Missing Piece: Marketing Your Niche Law Practice

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and many families will reunite and work as a team to complete a large jigsaw puzzle over the long holiday weekend. Some will also eat turkey and watch football, but pay attention to the jigsaw puzzle in the back corner—it is one key to understanding how to market a niche law practice.

Marketing a niche practice (especially in a small firm) has its challenges. Although a niche practice area often is surrounded by a big “moat” of needed expertise, the more specialized you are, the narrower your market focus should be. This article focuses on tips for marketing a small firm niche practice, but the concepts are the same if you are a big firm lawyer with a niche practice—your best “customers” are also likely the other lawyers in your firm, and it’s just as important to market to them as to external clients.

Step One: Look at the actual picture on the puzzle box.

Get a “picture” of where your niche fits into the larger scheme of things. Our firm practices in the narrow niche of ERISA and employee benefits. To market our niche, we need to understand where we fit in the big picture of our clients’ needs and where we don’t. We have made a conscious decision to limit our already narrow practice area. To maintain efficiencies and avoid ethical conflicts, we almost exclusively represent employers (rather than employees, plan participants, divorcees or plan service providers), which further narrows our list of potential clients. One successful family law attorney we know limits her clients to only fathers seeking custody of minor children. The narrower your specialty, the more likely you can become the “go to” expert in that arena.

Step Two: Separate pieces into groups of similar looking pieces.

Work with your “warm” market. When working a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to group similar pieces together—for example, put all the straight-edged end pieces in one pile, all the “blue sky” pieces in another. This narrows down the number of pieces that one must work with. In a small firm, marketing resources are likewise limited—they need to be used judiciously and efficiently. There are only so many hours in a day, and that is true for everyone, not just in small firms.

For example, although our firm has a federal practice and can and does practice nationwide, we focus our marketing efforts on Southern California and the Northeast, where we have physical offices and “boots on the ground.” We have found (and studies confirm) that no website or SEO technique can replace the value of face-to-face interaction to build trust in both potential clients and referral sources. For example, an actual handshake creates positive associations in the brain that cannot easily be replicated. See “The Power of a Handshake: Neural Correlates of Evaluative Judgments in Observed Social Interactions” concluding that a “handshake preceding social interactions positively influenced the way individuals evaluated the social interaction partners and their interest in further interactions, while reversing the impact of negative impressions.” It is important to get out there and meet people face to face, shake hands and then continue to nurture those relationships.

Step Three: Look for those pieces that appear to fit together most closely.

Once the pieces have been sorted into groups, each piece can then be evaluated for potential fit with the other pieces in the group. When marketing a niche practice, start with the other practice areas/businesses that are the closest possible fit to yours, and work out from there. In our case, that means focusing our marketing on other attorneys in the areas of employment and corporate law, as well as complementary businesses such as third-party plan administration firms, certified public accountants, investment advisors and other employee benefit plan service providers. Yes, we also fit in with general income tax practices, estate planning and family law to some extent. And we will market to those areas as well—but much fewer resources will be devoted to more removed substantive areas. For an intellectual property firm, this could result in an emphasis on start-up incubators, corporate attorneys or business litigators. In each case, look for contacts and potential referral sources that fit closely with your services, your firm’s price points and most importantly, your values.

Just as puzzle pieces only fit in with the right partner piece, your practice is not a good fit for every client or referral source. Make sure your website, marketing materials and marketing activities reflect you. My headshot on our website is not a typical attorney headshot—I am not wearing a suit and my hair is long and down. But I chose that headshot because when I saw it, my reaction was that it looks like “me.” And, I have recently had two new contacts mention they called me after a Google search specifically because of that picture. Potential clients who want a serious-looking attorney in a dark suit in front of a row of law books (who even uses those anymore?) are not likely to be a good fit for me—I like to laugh and have fun, even though I practice in an area that one supreme court justice called “sloughly” and another as “tedious”. As personal branding expert Katy Goshtasbi says in her book “Personal Branding in One Hour for Lawyers”: “[t]he first step of developing your personal brand is about self-discovery and stopping long enough to figure out who you are and what makes you special.”

Step Four: Find the pieces that “stand out.”

It is important to find ways to both be the expert in your niche and be known for being the expert in your niche. Some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle will be unique and will stand out. Those are often the first chosen, because you can look at the picture on the box and see that “the top of the church steeple has a horse on it” or the “tiger is only in a small section in the bottom right corner.” It won’t matter if you are the absolute best at what you do if no one can find you when they need you or if they forget you exist. Our firm committed to a monthly e-newsletter two years ago. It is no small task to get it published each month, because it is virtually all original content. Although we have had very few instances of being able to directly connect a new piece of business to the newsletter, our practice has grown much faster since we started publishing it. It is one method to stand out and stay top of mind. And it has additional benefits in that it gives our younger attorneys experience in writing articles, and it results in new content for our website as well as content we can use to more efficiently serve our clients. For example, each month we publish a one-page FAQ that we call the “Building Blocks of ERISA.” We use our newsletter articles and FAQs both when helping a potential new client or referral source get to know us, and as a library of plainly explained legal concepts that our clients may need to understand.

Step Five: Use the other puzzle pieces.

One of the disadvantages in marketing a niche practice can also be a big advantage—stick to your narrow area and refer everything else to another lawyer. Giving referrals is a proven way to get referrals. Be sure to keep a list of all the potential outgoing referral sources you meet along the way and nurture those relationships as well. For example, although we will assist with deferred compensation issues in bonus plans, severance arrangements and employment agreements, we are not employment lawyers and we don’t write employment agreements. If a client asks us for that, we refer it to someone on our list of trusted advisors.

Conclusion: everything in life is a trade-off of some sort, and marketing a niche law practice is no different. Play to your strengths to complete the puzzle.

Free Marketing Resource

The ABA Women Rainmakers committee of the ABA Law Practice Division offers free quarterly webinars and biannual series of local programs in the fall and spring at locations around the country. The Fall 2017 ABA Women Rainmakers Local Programming series specifically focused on developing and marketing a niche practice. If you would like to learn more about ABA Women Rainmakers events, please visit the committee webpage, where you can even access recordings of several past events.

About the Author

Sherrie Boutwell is a founding partner of Boutwell Fay LLP and is a former member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.


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