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Three Lessons for Small Firms from Small Farms

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This New York Times article, Small US Farms Find Profit in Tourism does triple duty as an analogue for a law firm niche practice , business model and marketing idea. The Times reports on the trend of farmers creating additional streams of revenue in the form of bed-and-breakfasts, horse-rides and corn mazes to supplement their income from traditional activities such as planting crops and raising livestock. These ancillary activities, which can produce as much as $50,000 in extra income, are often critical to the survival of many small farms. And they also produce valuable lessons for lawyers.

Business Model
Just like small farms, small firms aren’t necessarily self-sustaining. Some lawyers simply may not attract enough clients; others, may generate plenty of calls from prospects in need of legal help but who can’t pay full freight. Rather than selling one particular services, lawyers should consider a more diversified business model, offering a range of options from more commoditized unbundled, virtual legal services to bespoke services. Alternatively, like small firms, small firms can offer related legal services – such as DIY books, consulting work on a particular area of expertise, serving on a board of directors or providing freelance services. Even though your bread-and-butter may be your bespoke legal services, as I’ve written here, the added revenue can make a difference in your bottom line.

Marketing Model
I’ve taken my daughters to enough pumpkin-patch and apple-picking farm events to know that they also help move a farm’s other products. I’ve purchased fifty or sixty dollars worth of apples or pumpkins or other produce after every trip. Likewise, ancillary services can also draw clients to your bread-and-butter practice. A colleague of mine generated extra revenue through self-sponsored, for-fee CLE programs – through which he’d invariably pick up a new client impressed by his presentations. Just because you charge a few bucks for a webinar or e-book doesn’t mean that it can’t also help generate leads for your practice as well.

Niche Practice
Farmers who incorporate supplemental activities, whether it’s a corn maze or a pancake breakfast or inn services, will also encounter legal issues beyond the traditional mix of regulatory and contractual issues that arise in the course of traditional farming activities. The NYT mentions some of the insurance issues raised by ancillary activities, but there are many others, from contracts (dealing with vendors or contractors who might help provide ancillary services); personal injury (i.e., liability for the kid whose toe is crushed by the 100 pound pumpkin); health and sanitation regulations and permits (if the farm seeks to serve food) just to name a few. A lawyer who specializes in farm law might expand to address these related issues as well, as a niche practice.

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