Your new sole or small law office: General or niche practice?
Just as lawyers choose to practice solo or in small firm settings for a wide range of different reasons, there are many factors that play into the decision whether to develop a general practice or to focus on a particular niche.
Regardless of these factors, it’s important to actually consider the pros and cons of each model and to develop your new practice with intention and self-reflection. Some lawyers assume that it is commercially imperative −at least at first − to take every case that “walks in the door”. However, this strategy focuses on minimizing one kind of risk − the risk that you won’t be able to pay your bills – to the exclusion of other categories of risk you may not have considered: for example, the risk of dabbling too far out of your scope of competence and facing a malpractice claim. (Learn about the risks of dabbling in “Diversify without dabbling: Before expanding your practice, expand your confidence!” from the August 2012 issue of LAWPRO Magazine.)
Many areas of the law are much more complex today than they were a generation ago. While the image of the generalist lawyer − often working in a small town, developing “clients for life” and meeting all of their varied legal needs – may appeal to those with a true service orientation, it is very challenging to design a practice around more than one or two core areas of legal work. Each area of law requires fairly different approaches when it comes to calendaring, document generation, and procedure, and making all of these work together in one small office is a considerable challenge.
Many successful solos and small firm lawyers discover that while it may take time and may require turning down certain files, developing a more focused practice is both more manageable and more rewarding. Focusing on a single area of law or − if you are in a larger centre, even a single type of case within a single area of law – makes it easier for you to develop a thorough, deep, and current understanding of the relevant law; to build useful precedents; to purchase software and systems that best support your work; and to attract clients based on your reputation for excellence. You may need to take on a broader scope of matters when you first go into practice; however, once you are on your feet, you can work on narrowing your focus through targeted marketing and by soliciting referrals in your preferred area.
Work in a small centre and feel pressure to be “everything to everyone”? It’s admirable to be concerned about access to justice in your community. However, there may be solutions that don’t require you to take on work you’re not sure you’re up to. With a little effort, solos and small firm practitioners outside major centres can create vibrant referral networks and shared-space arrangements that help everyone attract more of the right kind of business, while ensuring that the clients can access the legal help they need without travelling too far. (For more information about managing risk when collaborating or sharing space, please see “Here today, gone tomorrow: Insurance implications of lawyer transfers and practice structures” from the January 2012 issue of LAWPRO Magazine.)
Remember – one of the most common reasons lawyers choose solo or small firm practice is to have greater autonomy. Your practice is yours to build… use intention and networking to build something that really suits you.