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The Chicken or the Egg? Changing Practice Areas in Challenging Times

I know a lot of lawyers who are struggling right now in this down economy.  Business lawyers, especially, are challenged since the companies they represent are either upside down or have little spare cash to spend on contract drafting, employee issues and litigation.  To those who want to refocus their practice areas into growth areas such as being an internet lawyer, intellectual property attorney, or some other niche practice area which continues to be strong, they will have to answer the age-old “chicken or egg” question. 

Do they wait for a client with that special need to find them before digging deep into that practice area and developing/expanding their expertise? Or do they expand that expertise on their own dime and then go out and try and get the business?

Many lawyers let market forces drive their business.  They wait for a client with a particular problem to come in, they go out and research that particular issue for the client on the client’s dime and then hope the next case on that same niche issue comes through the door.  Many general practice firms operate around the “client pays to educate me” approach. 

While there is no doubt that lawyers are often the beneficiaries of their clients’ problems in terms in terms of developing expertise, many forward thinking lawyers are swapping the chicken for the egg.  These lawyers are using the information on the internet, access sophisticated legal databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis , and the power of the blogosphere to get involved in new and excited areas of law which are growing on their own time using their own dime.

Although it sounds obvious that learning a niche issue or area would be the best way to enable you to market your services in that area, it is amazing to me how seldom that occurs. 

My own experience has helped me realize how easy and important it is that the area of internet law did not exist before 1995.  Applying contract, jurisdiction, trademark infringement, copyright infringement, and other established legal principles in the internet space was as much function of creating the law as it was applying it.  Internet lawyers had to take pains to go out and learn these principles well before any client showed up at the door but that’s just with a problem. 

I would make several observations from my own experience.  First, the internet makes expertise available.  With a little hard work in your spare time, there’s almost no area of law you can’t gain base experience in.  Further, your chance of getting a case within a practice you’re interested in is no more than random luck, unless you go out and develop an expertise and start talking up that expertise on the web and on the street. Finally, you need to show off your expertise by blogging it on the web so that clients who have specific problems can find your website with a simple Google search.  Of course, the added benefit is that you’ll extend your geographic reach outside whatever town you happen to live in. 

If you have expanded your expertise in practice areas or issues before any client hit your front door, let me know about your experience and thoughts. 

Comments

Paul Jacobson

I shifted away from general commercial practice to what I then called "new media law" just as social media was started to filter into South Africa a couple years ago. I called myself a "new media lawyer" and focussed on 4 themes I felt lay at the centre of what clients would require assistance with.

I can't say I did much work for the next year and a half or so in this space (part of it was that no-one really knew what a "new media lawyer" did - I switched to "web and digital media lawyer"). At the same time it is a space I am really excited about because it links my passion for the Web and social media with my legal practice.

I started seeing larger scale business adoption of social media in 2008 and knew it was a matter of time before business started thinking about the legal issues associated with their forays on to the social Web and I was right. Positioning myself a little ahead of the adoption curve (ok, way ahead of the adoption curve) has started to pay off as I am frequently regarded as the key person to involve in social media projects.

The challenge now is maintaining a lead on my colleagues and new competitors in this space.

GAL

Paul: You nailed it. These are long term investments of time, but definitely pay off in the long run. Then as new things happen within a practice area, you get the opportunity to be the first one to blog about it on a well established platform. The fact that you have been there longer than your competitors also give you an advantage. Congrats!

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