How Young and Transitioning Lawyers Can Carve Out a Successful Niche

Imagine a superstore that sells every conceivable type of good and grocery at a bargain basement price. That place — let’s call it Walmart — isn’t where people go to buy designer shoes or hand-crafted dressers. You don’t go to the likes of Walmart, in other words, for quality.

In the same way, people looking for high-quality legal services — or, more generally, people who know what kind of legal services they want in the first place— probably aren’t dialing the 1-800 number on the Better Call Saul-styled billboard of the one-stop-shop law firm.

The lesson here, says Ernest Svenson, is that lawyers who hold themselves out to be all things to all people will surely attract people who are all things — obstinate, wasteful, shortsighted, indiscriminate, etcetera.

Carving out a successful legal practice is as much about defining the work and clients you won’t take as it is about courting, tactfully, those you will.

In the previous installment of this series, Svenson, an attorney who coaches small firm and solo lawyers, told us how to build a clientele through the three A’s of marketing: authenticity, approachability and authority. Here, we discuss how to narrowly define the scope of that prospective clientele and create rich messaging that will resonate with it.


Logikcull: So you’ve been blogging continuously for, what, 13 years?

Svenson: Yeah. I’ve started a lot of blogs and I’ve helped a lot of friends start blogs. And at this point, when lawyers ask me about websites, I say, “Look, you need a website.” It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It doesn’t have to have a lot of pages. But you need to use it to establish your authority. And it would be best if you pick a niche, be authentic and show people you’re approachable and down to earth. And they will call you up!

“Pick a niche, be authentic and show people you’re approachable and down to earth. And they will call you up!”

That is something I learned when I learned what real marketing is. People don’t just go, “I stumbled across a lawyer. Let me call him immediately and hire him.” They don’t do that with anything! They don’t go, “Oh my gosh, somebody’s selling popcorn. I’ll buy the first bag of popcorn I see.” They make judgments about people and, when it comes to lawyers, that relationship is more like a priest relationship in a sense that you often have to give the lawyer sensitive information that’s embarrassing stuff. Clients don’t want to tell their lawyers some things, which is why some clients withhold stuff from their lawyers even though it’s protected by the attorney-client privilege. They just don’t want to tell the lawyer. They feel embarrassed.

So if you’re a lawyer that people can trust and get to know, and prospective clients feel like they can trust and get to know you simply by visiting your website, then jackpot!

Obviously you have to be that lawyer in real life for that to happen. Most lawyers are afraid to be authentic and down to earth. They’re afraid that they’re giving away something, that it’s a weakness. They don’t see other lawyers doing it, so they think it’s weird. They don’t understand the payoff. But, that’s another one of those things where, more and more, lawyers are starting to see the payoff because they’re using social media. They understand that all rigid all the time doesn’t mean you’re a good lawyer.

Logikcull: Now that there’s all this competition, not just within Big Law but also doing the kind of work that you’re doing, how would you advise a young lawyer — somebody just coming out of law school — or any attorney, for that matter, who doesn’t know what their next move is? Given the saturation of content — it seems like everybody’s blogging now — and the saturation of competition, what would you say to those people who are trying to chart their own paths alone?

Svenson: Well, I get that question a lot and I’ve given this advice many times. I would say — and this is true whether you’re starting fresh out of law school or whether you’ve been in a big firm and you’re leaving to start on your own because you want that flexibility — you do not want to be all things to all people.

I did not understand how marketing works. The word is a bad word, so I’m not even going to use it anymore. I’m going to tell you what I think it means. The word “marketing” can be boiled down to this: I’m really good at X. You’re out there looking for somebody who’s really good at X who you know, like, trust, and who you know is an authority and approachable and authentic. You’re looking for me and I’m looking for you. How do I let you know I exist, and then let you understand that I’m in fact that person you’re looking for? That’s what marketing is. It’s really a good thing when a lawyer and the right kind of client connect. It’s good for the lawyer. It’s good for the client. it’s good for the profession.

“You do not want to be all things to all people.”

The way most people think about marketing is “oh, put up a billboard and tell everybody you do everything.” The problem with that is, either you don’t do everything or, if you do, you don’t do it well. So you’re going to get people thinking, “Okay, fine. You do all these things and a bunch of other people do all these things, too, so how much less can I get you do it for me? Because you’re a commodity and they’re a commodity.

So you want to pick something that’s very focused. Coming out of law school, it’s harder because you don’t know what you want to focus on. But do not try to be everything to everyone. You need to make it clear that you do not do this. You do not want to work for this kind of client.

For example, people come to me and think “you’re a litigator; you like to fight!” A lot of lawyers go on TV and say, “I will fight for you tooth and nail. I’ll do everything. I’ll battle this to the Supreme Court.” I don’t want those kind of clients. I want to send the message that I’m looking for somebody who understands that 99 percent of all cases settle. If we need to go to trial, we’re going to trial. But if we’re not going to trial, we’re not going to waste money doing things that only have value at trial. So let’s be reasonable. Let’s figure out how we can settle at the right time with the maximum leverage that you can get out of it, which for me means using technology to keep my costs low, to do things efficiently for you so you don’t have to spend a lot of money up front. Those kinds of clients are what I’m looking for. And there are a lot of lawyers looking for that kind of lawyer. But there aren’t a lot of lawyers saying that.

It’s not hard to get that kind of business if you say the right things to the right people. So figure out what your niche is. Be an authority in that niche. And message — not market — to those kind of people so that they can understand that you’re a real down to earth person who’s reasonable, and you’ll get good clients. You won’t get what, in the political world, they call “low information voters” — these people who, despite being bombarded with all kinds of information, can’t figure out who they’re going to vote for till the last minute, because they’re not good information handlers. They’re kind of just confused muddlers along. As a lawyer, you would prefer not to have those kinds of clients. You don’t want people that make poor decisions and make them quickly. You just don’t.

“Figure out what your niche is and be an authority in that niche.”

So you want to spend the effort figuring out what you’re really good at and what kind of clients you really want, and once you get that figured out, you can actually automate the messaging. You get a website, you focus on that, you tell that story. Those kinds of clients will contact you. You will get more referrals from people who now understand what it is you do well and what you really like doing.

As told to Robert Hilson, a director at Logikcull. Robert can be reached at robert.hilson@logikcull.com

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