I felt somehow honored (or at least vindicated) by the current issue of GPSOLO magazine, the publication of the small firm and general practice section of the ABA. The cover headline shouts “Niche Practices,” and the article is titled “Building a Niche Practice: Go Small to Go Big.” For the section whose charge is seemingly to represent the “general practice” attorney, such a cover story is a remarkable admission.
The article starts with some obvious statements: “it’s no secret that the legal marketplace is in turmoil… In this competitive environment lawyers must distinguish themselves from the competition in order to claim a bigger piece of the pie. One way to do this: build a niche law practice.” Duh.
For a decade I have been preaching that most lawyers look through the wrong end of their telescopes. They look from the perspective of the 20th (or perhaps 19th) – century world — “this is what I do and here I am.” Or even worse, “I’m a lawyer, what do you need?” They should be asking “who is my target market, and specific services do they need?” “Anything for everyone” isn’t a target – it’s a plea.
Most consumer-level legal work is rapidly being commoditized and is leaving the legal profession. Software, LegalZoom, RocketLawyer and hundreds of other web services offer consumers a wide range of cheap (though not always good) alternatives. The only long-term road to legal success is abandoning the commodity market and moving into the “value” areas, focusing on specific legal expertise that is highly valued by a clearly-identifiable segment of the sophisticated buying marketplace.
How do you “niche” and “target market?” There are two very specific ways. The first is the obvious: developing or focusing on a specific area of your expertise, identifying the market which most needs that service, and finding avenues to reach it.
For instance, I have helped an estate planning attorney in a state with complex pension rules dramatically expand their practice by positioning them as “the teacher’s pension protector.” In another case, I helped a personal injury lawyer position themselves strongly in the parent and education community as the “child injury lawyer.”
The second route is less obvious. How the consumer perceives you — as a commodity or a “value” lawyer — depends not so much what service you provide, but on the buyer’s perception of your special value to them. When a prospect is referred to you, someone they trust has identified you as having special – or at least higher – expertise than strangers from the phone book, or services from LegalZoom. In a very real sense, your referrer has actually “branded” you with that prospect. This ratifies the importance of personal referral marketing, which I have always emphasized in my seminars and my coaching.
The day of the “GP” lawyer is passing. Too many young lawyers, unable to find jobs, are hanging out their own shingles and taking whatever they can find — becoming the new (and legally dangerous) generation of “GP” lawyers. The smartest lawyers are moving up the food chain, identifying their niche and target markets, and prospering.