The thought of turning a special interest into a niche practice remains a pipe dream for most lawyers.
After all, it’s one thing to cultivate a curiosity for a vague subject during leisure time but it can be hard to believe that passion will put food on the table.
However, those who have taken the leap and turned their side interest into a law practice say it can be done - and remain profitable - if approached in the right way with the proper zeal.
The first and perhaps most obvious step to becoming a legal specialist is getting involved. Susan Wortzman, founder of Wortzman Nickle Professional Corp. in Toronto, started her concentration on e-discovery while working as litigation counsel at a law firm.
She gradually gained experience in e-discovery through the files she worked on, got involved with the Sedona Conference, and spoke about the topic at various events. But there came a time when she had to make a decision.
“Nobody was referring any work to me because I was at a firm,” she says. Luckily for her, when it came time to make a move and hang her own shingle, the groundwork had been laid.
“As soon as I opened up our doors, the work just started pouring in, and we were very, very busy,” she says.
But not all lawyers are willing to take the type of risk that Wortzman did in setting up her own shop. Others may look to people like Davis LLP associate
Tudor Carsten, who says it’s important to keep your head up and look for opportunities to follow your passion.
About four years ago, he received an internal firm e-mail announcing plans to establish a video-game law practice. Carsten, himself a longtime video-game enthusiast, jumped at the opportunity and joined the fledgling group.
His litigation experience played a big role in the success of the practice, which deals with a high volume of contract disputes between game developers and publishers.
At the same time, Carsten believes it may be useful for lawyers with specialized interests to keep in mind that they need not practise in a single area. On top of his work with the video-game law group, he also focuses on fraud recovery work.
“It’s certainly a very interesting niche that I practise in,” he says, advising lawyers to guard against diving too quickly or deeply into a specialized area. “I guess if you feel really lucky and have a fantastic opportunity, maybe do that, but to me it sounds a bit crazy.”
At the same time, proper planning is the best way to guarantee that a specialized practice remains sustainable. Wortzman and her partner Susan Nickle had a clear vision of what their new practice would look like before diving in headfirst.
They knew it was important to ensure their shop wasn’t viewed as a threat to existing law firms, so they opted to focus solely on e-discovery while refusing to get involved in litigating cases.
“We have made it clear that we are absolutely not going into the courtroom,” says Wortzman. “We’ll come in, you can hire us at the beginning of a discovery process and say goodbye to us when the discoveries are over . . . and we’re not interfering in your case or your client.”
Wortzman maintains that sticking to a strong business plan is paramount in order to start a new practice off on the right foot.
“Apart from a financial perspective - you know, how big does your bank loan have to be and how long can you afford not to get paid - really have a clear focus about the work that you want,” says Wortzman.
“That will direct your web site, [and] your marketing will be driven by that, your relationships, and how you’re going to focus your energy. You don’t want to try to do too many things and become unclear about what you want.”
For Mark Hicken, a Vancouver trusts and estates lawyer who has carved his own niche, online marketing has been a key to success. Hicken has used an electronic newsletter and blog to raise his profile as a wine-law specialist.
The site, located at winelaw.ca, has become a top resource for the industry and therefore a great client generator for Hicken.
He has also gained visibility through Internet search-engine optimization. A Google search for wine law ranks Hicken’s blog as the top result.
“The Internet and the power of doing Internet marketing has really been a game changer in the last 10 years,” he says.
“Particularly with niche practice areas, it used to be that it was difficult to communicate with a large group of people unless you went out and pounded the pavement and went and met with people personally.
Now, setting up a blog and doing a newsletter is an amazingly powerful way of connecting with people. It’s a relatively inexpensive way, too.”