When legal futurists warn of how technology spells the “end of lawyers,” they invoke travel agents as Exhibit A. “Who uses travel agencies, when you can just go online and find deals?” they ask. “And,” another futurist may add, the deals that consumers can find on their own are better than what an agents can offer since they’re inclined to promote programs that give them kickbacks or the highest commission rather than those that are right for the customer.
But, turns out that the legal futurists aren’t entirely right. Turns out that amidst the ruins, some travel agencies are thriving. Take for example, Ovation Travel, a travel agency focused exclusively on serving travel needs of lawyers and recently featured in CBS Local. Run by Paul Metselaar, a former attorney himself, Ovation Travel now serves 700 law firms, procuring business by securing corporate discounts, offering real-time service that would allow for last minute changes and targeting law firm recruitment programs that fly law students out for interviews.
The lesson? Even in periods of industry disruption, niches offer shelter against the storm. That’s because techno-powered products are designed serve the majority, and as a result, don’t adequately cater to the unique needs of special groups.
But niches aren’t limited to functioning as a shield against industry changes. They can also operate as a sword that enable lawyers, particularly younger or less experienced lawyers, to gain entry to previously off-limits markets. A good case in point: recent New York Times piece highlighted two Gen X lawyers with niche specialties – (beer breweries and drones) built thriving practices for themselves within the confines of big law that enabled them to pierce the firms’ management structure which was otherwise dominated by lawyers aged 60 and up. That same philosophy works for solos too: as a young energy lawyer starting out in an industry dominated by gray caps, I didn’t stand a chance of securing business from established utilities and large independent power producers. So I focused my efforts instead on representing fledgling marine energy companies, not a sustainable practice in itself, but one that gained me a ticket to representing larger renewable energy developers.
Moreover, while technology will kill the market for much of the standard work that lawyers do, as Keith Lee observes, on the flip side, technology is a powerful driver of niche practices. For starters, with changing technology, new areas of law are created. Five to seven years ago, few attorneys cared much about social media, but today, it’s a practice area in its own right. Ditto data breach protection, drone law, and representation of victims of internet bullying. And technology not only gives rise to new practice areas, but it also reduces the barriers to starting and sustaining a niche. Back in the day when I launched my marine energy practice, I had to make monthly trips to the library to review trade press for new developments. Today, I could set up a news aggregator or track filings at agencies and gather more information in ten minutes than I could have accomplished in ten days when I first started out. And of course, low cost websites, e-newsletters and blogs all offer ideal platforms for publicizing a niche practice.
As the saying goes, nothing in life is certain except for death and taxes. A niche practice doesn’t guarantee that you’ll prosper in hard times, but in today’s world, a niche is probably as close to real job security as one can get.