Building your niche
Follow your passion, work hard, and the rest should fall into place.
Illustration by Thomas Danneberg
As a personal injury litigator in the early ’90s, Heather Ann Dixon didn’t plan to practise elder law. But as she got involved in the area, she says, “I didn’t choose it. It chose me.” Once the Winnipeg lawyer began serving on the board of the Alzheimer’s Society of Manitoba and was in touch with people who dealt with elder, personal care and dementia issues, she realized that “this was a huge niche that was not being filled,” and came to the conclusion that it was a viable legal practice area.
A niche practice can be an excellent way to set yourself apart from the rest of the legal marketplace, providing an opportunity to do something unique. Chris Giaschi, a shipping and maritime lawyer at Giaschi & Margolis in Vancouver, says in some ways running a niche law practice is easier than practising in a broader area. “You can really be on top of the law within your niche practice. If you’re a generalist it’s very hard to stay up on everything.”
Another benefit is having a smaller community of people to deal with, he says. “Most of my cases are with lawyers and even clients on the other side that are people that I’ve dealt with in the past and I know and respect and there’s some mutual respect there. It makes the practice of law a little more enjoyable on a personal level.”
"Once you’re recognized as one of the leading lawyers in that practice area, you’ve got as good a shot at getting decent-sized cases as someone in a big firm."
Giaschi says it’s much easier to compete with bigger firms if you’ve got a niche practice. Once you’re recognized as one of the leading lawyers in that practice area, you’ve got as good a shot at getting decent-sized cases as someone in a big firm, he says.
Of course, there can be downsides to having a niche practice, including being more susceptible to the whims of the marketplace. It can be challenging to be one of only a few practitioners in your area, since there may be no one to ask for advice. And it can take time to build a reputation as a niche practitioner. Giaschi says he spent the “first six to eight years years just learning the law.”
Despite the challenges, practising in an area that you’re passionate about can be rewarding. Dixon derives a great deal of joy from helping others. “I love being able to make sure that a person is safely placed and financial or emotional or even physical abuse has ceased.”
Choosing your niche
In addition to identifying your strengths, weaknesses, and your target clients, the important thing is to follow your passion — focus on something in which you have an avid interest, say lawyers who’ve been successful in creating niche practices. “Make sure you really like the area,” says Sara Cohen, the founder of Fertility Law Canada and a partner at D2Law LLP in Toronto, whose practice is exclusively devoted to fertility law. Cohen says she did a lot of soul-searching — not just about what kind of lawyer she wanted to be, but also what kind of relationship she wanted to have with her clients, and what kind of lifestyle she wanted to have.
Cohen has been fascinated by issues in fertility law since law school, but she “wasn’t sure how that would ever translate into an actual practice.”
Following her first maternity leave from her work as a commercial litigator, Cohen took a leap of faith and jumped feet-first into practising fertility law. She spent three months immersing herself in the area, reading and talking to “anyone who had some relationship to this. I reached out and tried to build relationships and learn from as many people as I could.”
Laying the groundwork
Here are five things to do in preparation for hanging out your shingle as a niche practitioner in order to thrive in your specialized market:
Illustration by VENNIMO/VEER.COM
1. Do your homework
Research everything about your chosen area and learn its language. Read everything you can find on the subject and talk to others.
2. Get your message out
Talk to everyone you can think of who can help you, including lawyers and any other professionals who work in your area or related fields and who may be able to send work your way. Lecture, write about your subject and join related associations.
3. Learn how to run your own business
Take courses in law firm management to learn how to run your practice.
4. Constantly update your skills
Keep on top of new developments in your area of law and related areas.
5. Be open to other fields that relate to your practice area
Find out what other disciplines might help and affect your practice and learn their language. “Work with them,” advises Dixon. Ask them questions, interview them, talk to them regularly. “Some people have done things that you’ve never done and you can use those or connect those to your practice.”
Building your brand
Illustration by Takeiteasy Art/VEER.COM
Once you’ve chosen an area you feel deeply connected and committed to, there are plenty of ways to build your brand and distinguish yourself in the marketplace as an expert. Join an association and find like-minded people, then let everyone you speak to know where your interests lie. Offer to work pro bono, which can lead to future opportunities. Lisa Mitchell, an environmental lawyer who runs LJM Environmental Law in Wolfville, N.S., says that she didn’t work as a lawyer in her field for the first two years, choosing to work as a consultant on environmental management and get experience because “it’s really difficult to hang out your shingle as a lawyer when you’re that young.” Go to industry functions and network with others who work in your area of law — not just lawyers but those associated with it, including doctors and other professionals. Accept any offers to speak at industry and related functions — better yet, seek out opportunities and put yourself forward as a speaker. Use social media to help you become the go-to person in your niche. Create a website that focuses on what you can provide to clients. Write about your practice area in magazines or websites in your area of expertise and offer to speak at conferences or webinars to help distinguish yourself as an industry expert. A blog is another great way to build your reputation. Post all your articles and speeches on your website to drive potential clients to your site.
Building your expertise
One of the best things about having a niche practice is becoming an expert and being the go-to person in your area. Giaschi spent six to eight years learning about maritime law, “doing the work, working under good people, keeping my head down and doing lots of work for other people.”
Talk to other lawyers, professionals and anyone else who may be able to send you work.
Know the case law and legislation that relate to your practice inside out.
Attend any events that have to do with your chosen practice area, including continuing legal education courses.
Keep learning and stay on top of current events in your practice area.
Here are a few resources to give you more guidance on niche practices.
Your new sole or small law office: General or niche practice? by Nora Rock
Legal Productivity website: 7 Content Generating Tips for Niche Blogging Lawyers by Tim Baran
The Law Society of British Columbia Getting Started: Opening Your Law Office by Felicia S. Folk
Get Slightly Famous: Become a Celebrity in Your Field and Attract More Business with Less Effort by Steven Van Yoder
Advice from the experts
Sara Cohen, founder of Fertility Law Canada and a partner at D2Law LLP in Toronto
“Find something you love and are passionate about and give it absolutely everything you’ve got. If you’re really passionate about something and you do excellent work, the clients follow.”
Chris Giaschi, shipping and maritime lawyer at Giaschi & Margolis in Vancouver
“The No.1 rule is do really good work. Know the law, service your clients and treat all other lawyers with the kind of respect you expect them to treat you with.”
Heather Dixon, elder law, Pullan Kammerloch Frohlinger in Winnipeg
“Follow your heart, follow what gives you a good feeling at night.”
Lisa Mitchell, LJM Environmental Law in Wolfville, N.S.
“You have to be very much willing to connect with people outside the legal field. A lot of my best support, my best contacts and clients came from getting out there, other people who were interested in environmental issues.”
Ann Macaulay is a freelance writer based in Toronto.