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Thinking about a new solo practice area?

by Carolyn Elefant on November 3, 2011 · 5 comments

in Practice Areas

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The following is a guest post by Roy S. Ginsburg.

When selecting the practice area that will determine how you spend the rest of your career, you can “go deep” or “go shallow.”  It is almost always better to “go deep.”

“Going deep” means that you select a practice focus that you enjoy, in a healthy market for legal services, and in which you can reasonably obtain the needed skills and experience.  How do you proceed?

When it comes to selecting your work focus, Steven Jobs said:  “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.  If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.  Don’t settle.”

As a lawyer coach, two kinds of solo practitioners come to me for help in choosing a practice area.  The first group consists of younger solos trying to decide where to start. The other group includes more experienced solo attorneys who are looking for a new practice area – either because they are bored with their current practice area or because of changes that have decreased the need for legal services in their current practice area.  These chances include new competition, economic trends, or recent legislation (for example, tort reform) or court rulings (for example, limits to certain types of claims).

The first step is to select a practice area you can enjoy.  Before jumping into any new practice area, take a “time out” and do a bit of self-reflection.  As Confucius once said, “Pursue a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”  Ask yourself and answer these questions:

  • Why did you become a lawyer in the first place?
  • What is your passion in law and in life?
  • What do you enjoy doing?

Try to find the place where these answers intersect with legal practice areas.

Of course, there is more to goal-setting than lofty aspirations.  You must also determine that there is a healthy market for what you would like to do.  To assess trends, spend some time online or attending CLE presentations.  Get out and talk to people – especially people who already practice in an area in which you are interested.  Have coffee or lunch, and ask questions like:

  • What do you like and dislike about your practice?
  • How do you market your practice?
  • How fast were you able to grow your practice?
  • What are the short- and long-term prospects for a practice in this area?

If you discover that your potential practice area is economically realistic as well as interesting, then you have a third question to ask yourself.  Do you possess the skills and abilities to make a name for yourself in this area?  If not, what steps do you need to take in order to acquire these skills and abilities?

There is only so much you can learn in a physical or online classroom.  You need some actual experience.  When coaching attorney clients, I suggest that they find a colleague who practices in the potential practice area and ask to work with them on a case or two (for pay or even for free), just to see what the work entails.

Another way to gain experience is to take a pro bono case in the relevant area.  If you want to see what it’s like to practice family law, for example, most counties or cities have organizations that coordinate the placement of pro bono cases with interested and willing attorneys.  Many of these organizations provide training and mentoring.

Now may be the perfect time for solo attorneys – new and existing — to consider a new practice area focus.  If you don’t explore your options, you might find yourself stuck for many years in a practice area that is neither satisfying nor lucrative.

As Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”

Roy Ginsburg is an attorney coach in the areas of business development, practice management and career development/transitions. He helps his nationwide clients achieve individualized practice goals and career satisfaction. He is also a solo practitioner and practices in the area of legal marketing ethics. His clients include FindLaw and Super Lawyers magazine, Thomson Reuters businesses.  www.royginsburg.com

  • Anon

    Simplistic much?

  • Anon

    Here’s a twist: Let’s say you’re not a new attorney looking for a job, or an experienced attorney forced to choose a new focus.  Let’s say you’re an equity partner at a small industry-based-niche firm whose “industry” does not excite you?  You are earning >$300K  a year (some pretty heavy “bowlines to throw off”), but you’d rather be working in a different industry altogether.  You’re the sole bread-winner in the family, and have children.  Stay or go? 

  • Anonymous

    This is pretty sound and grounded advice for anyone embarking on anything to do with law. Law undergraduates, postgrads, trainees or even attorneys can all use these tips to better themselves. It is very informative and would like to thank you. Personally, I feel you need to experience something first for a short-period and then come to a consensus as to whether you like it or not :)

  • Augie

     Anon-  If you’re still mulling it over, consider reading “Quitter” by Jon Acuff.  Take the time to make a sensible transition, but as some who’s been a bored attorney for over 15 years, I’ve decided life is too short to not give it a go.  That said, I’m no guru,… in fact, I’m still trying to discover what “it” is for me.  Best of luck.

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