Strategies for Expanding into a New Practice Area
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Many areas of law practice tend to cycle up and down over time. Savvy attorneys keep enough capital reserves to get them through the predictable lean times. The business volatility in recent years has some worried lawyers seeking to build up a practice in a different area of expertise. I wrote about ways to get experience that you don’t already have, but perhaps you dabble now and then in another area. Here are some tips on building up your visibility and expertise in a practice area you aren’t known for.
1. Choose an additional practice area that complements your existing practice.
Your credibility will be higher if there is some overlap between your new practice area and what you already have a reputation for. When real estate, securities or other transactional practices wane, some transactional lawyers step over into litigation involving similar subject matter expertise. To begin making such a transition, offer to consult on cases with trial lawyers you know. Many commercial litigators take on such a wide variety of cases that they don’t have your depth of expertise or awareness of the numerous laws that may impact the case they just took on.
During an extended lean time for transactional lawyers, I helped trial lawyers recognize additional causes of action to pursue in cases arising out of transactions. I attended depositions and whispered in their ear or passed notes to guide them in laying the foundation for piercing the corporate veil. Soon they were asking me to cover some depositions for them. Then another law firm asked me to partner with them in pursuing a number of officer and director liability cases. I monitored cases for an excess liability carrier who appreciated the thoroughness in reporting that a transactional lawyer brings, because we pay great attention to detail. The work just expanded to fill the gaps until my transactional practice revived. Sometimes it is easier for big firm lawyers to dance back and forth between transaction and litigation work over the years, but this is how I did it when I had a solo practice.
2. Maintain relationships with lawyers in other practice areas.
Attorneys tend to hang out with “their own kind” too much. It would have been a lot harder to get the opportunities I described, if I hadn’t maintained relationships with all kinds of lawyers. Most bar association sections permit non-members to attend their regular meetings, CLEs and other events. Invite law school classmates to reconnect over lunch or after work activities. Get acquainted with your friend’s friends. Be willing to ask for advice and mentoring. They may even refer some smaller matters or conflicts to you over time.
Be sure to think about how you can benefit the lawyers who can help you. For example, if you are a transactional lawyer moving into litigation, can you offer to make sure their Professional Corporation or Professional Limited Liability Company records are in order? Can you advise them about whether they should move from a sole proprietorship or partnership to some other entity form? Can you help them acquire some property or negotiate an office lease? Be willing to volunteer or discount your services for their help.
3. Write an article on a topic in your new practice area.
Don’t worry that you don’t have enough expertise yet. You can write a summary, review or abstract of 3 to 5 existing articles on an important or useful topic. You can compare and contrast what other experts have said. Many publications which are interested in the type of articles those experts wrote will also be interested in a compilation or round-up article. When you do that kind of careful analysis, you’ll become very familiar with the significant issues, and your confidence will increase. Your readers (and potential clients) will probably assume you were chosen to write the article because of your expertise.
4. Interview the other authors and industry leaders.
They may not have heard of you before, but the authors will remember you after you discuss their writing with them, and give them additional publicity by writing about their thoughts. Give them the opportunity to respond to your comments or to what another author said.
By interviewing industry leaders for your articles, you can develop relationships with potential clients. I elaborated on that kind of relationship building in another context in my post on the Raising the Bar blog called “Unusual Tips for Laid-off Lawyers“. As you publicly join the conversation, you will begin to be recognized or acknowledged more and more. With time and continued writing activity, your name may be suggested for panels or invitations to write more articles. Your “fame” can grow as fast as (or perhaps even faster) than your expertise. You don’t have to wait for years of experience to get known.
5. Get involved with the blogging community.
In the same vein, the door to connecting with most bloggers is wide open. Just post comments on their blog from time to time. Mention them and respond to their posts in your blog. They will probably see a Google alert or track back that notifies them that you’ve blogged a response. It’s also ok to send them a message letting them know via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. just to converse personally. Today many of the thought leaders don’t bother with traditional publications. They develop their own following by blogging. If you choose blogging as your pathway to recognition, you almost have to get active on Twitter or other social media to jumpstart awareness of your blog.
6. Rinse and repeat.
Don’t give up too early. All of these tips involve building relationships, whether in person, by phone or virtually. Building a relationship requires trust. To generate trust you must have repeated interactions where people get the opportunity to witness your reliability. Even though you may need new business now, unless you have already done a good job of building and maintaining relationships, you’ll need to get active and stay active. If you’re looking for new business, you’ve got the time…