Finding Your Niche in the Legal World

BY ROB FRIEDMAN

Gone are the days of general practice lawyers, or even of general “litigators” and “corporate” and “criminal” lawyers. Those few jack-of-all-trades small-town lawyers have referral networks, and the harried in-house counsel who wear ten hats rely heavily on a menu of outside law firms for complicated matters. As the law gets more complex, the only way for lawyers to competently practice is to stick to a few things that they do best.

Finding your niche is not easy, but it is one of the more important career development tasks you will face. Here is some advice on how to find your place:

? Keep your powder dry for as long as you can: large or medium-sized firms that have several practice areas of interest to you will provide the best opportunities to sample different types of work. Firms will try to pigeonhole you as soon as possible, particularly into their bread-and-butter practice groups. This can be a good thing if those groups interest you and are “hot” areas, but try to keep rotating for as long as you can.

? Do not keep your powder dry for too long: the flip-side of the point above is that you do not want to be a senior associate without at least a few areas of expertise, so start concentrating your work after a few years even if you remain unsure of where you want to end up.

? If you take a wrong turn, turn around immediately. You thought you wanted to be a litigator but then realized you do not want to see the inside of a courtroom? Do not wait to make the switch. Every day you wait makes it harder for you to get back on a different track.

? Consider geography: even if you start in a big city, consider where you may want to be in 10 years. Federal regulatory work might be in demand in D.C., but adopting it as a specialty will limit your options. M&A plays in New York, but opportunities in smaller towns are limited. Choose an area that can be “downsized” to meet the needs of clients where you might move your practice.

? Consider a government job if you know your chosen field: there is no better way to learn an area of the law than from inside the government agency that creates or enforces it. Whether you stay in government or go into private practice, the experience will pay off. Just be careful not to jump in too fast – you can always move into a government position after spending a few years in a private firm.

? Your hobbies are your hobbies, not your area of practice. Love music and sports and animals when you get home from work. If you happen to land your dream job as animal-rights counsel to Gwen Stefani, congratulations. Just do not be disappointed when you find that you have to deal with as much crap as any other lawyer (or maybe much more).

? Beware the bait-and-switch: a trap in particular for those who violate the rule above is that they are lured to a firm with a sexy practice area only to be pushed into another (less sexy) group. If you want to focus on a particular practice group or work for a particular lawyer at a firm, make sure that the firm has real work for a new associate in that area and not just make-work for a few summer associates.

? Do not make assumptions: young lawyers hear words like tax and insurance and trusts and run for the hills. Try it before you consider it a bore.

? Distinguish hot from fad. A good rule of thumb: if the practice area has been around for a while but now is booming (e.g., patent law, international trade, employment law) it is hot; if the niche is based on a new area of the law developing in response to a particular event or legislation, be wary.

? Advertise your specialty: tell the outside world you are an expert by publishing articles and giving presentations. Make sure everyone you know understands what you do. And tell them when you have switched practice areas. Your contacts will generally think of you for one thing only – so make sure it is the right thing.

? Go with the flow: do not worry if you are directionless for a while. Sometimes working too hard on finding your niche will take you off-course. It is fine to float for a time and see where the demand for your skills takes you. Chances are you will be pushed into a growing field. And you will be in good company, since that is how most lawyers wind up in their specialties.

How do you know when you have found your niche? To paraphrase Potter Stewart, you will know it when you feel it. It is the feeling of having a client or colleague barrage you with questions in your area of expertise and being able to confidently answer them. It means no longer having to fake it, because you have already made it.

Rob Friedman ’98, a former RECORD editor, is an insurance coverage litigator in the West Palm Beach, FL office of the law firm Gunster Yoakley.

Comments