Discover, and Market, Your Niche Law Practice

  • March 19, 2009
  • Ann Macaulay

Thinking of switching gears from a general practice to a niche area? There are plenty of good reasons to do so, not least of which is loving what you do – and getting paid to do it.

Lawyers have discovered a wide variety of unique practice areas – animal law, dental law, international adoption law, cottage law and elder law are just a few examples. If there’s an area that you’re truly interested in, find out everything you can about it and then pursue it zealously, advise several lawyers who have done just that.

Wine has been both a passion and a hobby for many years for Mark Hicken, a Vancouver marketing consultant and lawyer who specializes in direct-to-consumer marketing for wineries and wine/spirit agencies. While he continues to do a small amount of estate and trusts law, over the past year he has steered his practice towards wine law in a focused way. “I decided if I was going to stay doing some law practice, I wanted to do something that I was really interested in and passionate about.”

Hicken’s “aha” moment came when he attended the Wine Executive Program at the University of California. Richard Mendelson, a full-time wine lawyer in Napa who also teaches wine law at Berkeley, spoke on the legal issues that affect the wine industry. “It was really inspiring,” says Hicken. At that point he realized that’s what his law practice should focus on.

While there are few lawyers practising wine law in Canada, our heavily regulated wine industry offers plenty of opportunities. As Hicken says, “there’s no other wine-producing country in the western world that has such archaic distribution laws as Canada.”

Become an Expert

It can take years to become knowledgeable and grow a niche practice, especially if it’s in an obscure area. Do your homework first and learn everything you can about the issues surrounding it. Volunteering within organizations that are involved in the area is a great way to learn – and to make connections with people who may eventually become clients.

International art lawyer Bonnie Czegledi, who practises in Toronto, receives many e-mails from lawyers interested in her field. “What people want to hear is that there’s a three-month apprenticeship course and then you become an international art lawyer.” But it doesn’t work that way, she says. “It’s really a combination of a lot of different abilities and talents that come together into one field. Because I’m an artist I was involved always with artists’ rights and galleries and I knew who the various players were in the area over my career. I helped artists on a pro bono level throughout my career, as well as galleries.”

Even in law school Czegledi knew that she wanted to practise international art law but was told it wasn’t possible. “I heard little or no encouragement and much negativity throughout my law school years, both from professors with whom I discussed future plans and from my fellow students, none of whom seemed to feel that my ambitions to create this kind of niche practice would be workable.”

After being called to the Bar she did commercial contracts and litigation, but the idea to eventually practise art law was always in the back of her mind. So with a strong focus and determination, Czegledi eventually melded her two loves, art and law, into a successful practice. Fortuitously, her interest in art and cultural property coincided with a global explosion of interest in the world of art, along with skyrocketing prices.

Get Your Firm on Board

Chris Bennett of Davis LLP in Vancouver was quick to seize an opportunity when he saw one. He and a colleague at the firm had some clients in the video game field and realized that what they were doing was very similar to a lot of the other technology and intellectual property work they did, but there were some differences, including specific contract terms and different ways that software is developed and distributed in that industry. “We realized there isn’t anybody specializing in this in Canada so we thought hey, why not us?”

He approached his partners at the firm, who were supportive of the idea of creating the country’s first video game law department. Bennett cautions others who work within law firms to make sure they have the firm’s support before jumping into a new area.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do without it,” says Bennett. If you’re a solo practitioner, you can do whatever you like, but for him, “the firm support was very key.” He adds that some firms would shoot down such an idea. “They’d say that’s childish or silly or something.”

Bennett says it was important that he had a strong grounding in technology and intellectual property law before launching a niche practice. When law students ask him how to get into video game law, “I tell them make sure you cover off all the other bases, learn a lot about other types of law. Because it’s not enough just to know video game-related law. You need to know if there’s a tax issue or an employment issue. To identify those you need a basis in those areas as well.”

Pros and Cons of Niche Specialization

There are many benefits to limiting your practice to one area. If you become the go-to person in a certain field, your name is first on everyone’s lips. Staying current with the law in your area is easier and you can streamline work more easily.

“One advantage is to be able to do something that not a lot of other people do,” says Bennett. He cites the common experience of going to meetings for a particular industry group or association and finding “dozens and dozens of other lawyers there who are looking for the same sort of work that you are.” In his industry, he’s often the only lawyer there. “That’s been great, we’ve been able to get a lot of work, and a lot of referral work as well.”

One thing Bennett enjoys is the fact that video game law covers new technology, so interesting new legal issues pop up frequently. “A lot of times you don’t know what the answer is because there isn’t one and the courts haven’t decided it yet. So you have to wrap your mind around something unusual and different and figure it out, which is challenging.”

Michael Penman at Blaney McMurtry LLP in Toronto, who does commercial litigation, got involved in sports law about 30 years ago when he did some litigation work for the Greater Toronto Hockey League. The sports-related work snowballed from there.

Building on past experience gives clients the benefit of what you’ve already learned, says Penman. “You become an expert. And because you’re doing so much of it, many of the problems you’ve seen already. Therefore the client isn’t paying for someone to work from the ground up because we’re already halfway along to the answer, just from previous experience.”

As a self-described sports nut, Penman has had the opportunity to “meet some pretty interesting people, like the people at Hockey Canada or Ken Dryden.” And when it comes to hockey gossip, “I’m the go-to guy at the firm and everybody comes to me to hear who’s going to go where.”

That inside knowledge also means that Penman has common ground with other clients who know he’s involved in the hockey world. “Half the time at some point during the conversation there’s probably some mention of hockey resulting from my involvement.”

If you see an opportunity to practise law in an area where no one else is practising, great. But getting up to speed in the legal issues surrounding that area can be difficult. The learning curve will be steep and the lack of mentors can make it difficult. Penman says another potential problem is putting all your eggs in one basket. “If the industry takes a dive, then so does your business.”

Market Yourself

As with any law practice, it’s necessary to market your services. But being in a niche practice means that “you’re not just throwing yourself out there as one of goodness knows how many tens of thousands of commercial litigators,” Penman says. If you’re marketing to potential clients that are part of a distinct group, it’s easier to focus and get your name out there.

Penman also points out that, from an early stage, lawyers who are at a firm should make their interests known to colleagues who are already practising within the field they want to be in. “Don’t hide your candle under the bushel, let people know that is something you would like to do. Don’t let it happen by chance; have somebody think, ‘I’d rather give it to somebody who’s interested than take a chance on somebody who might not be.’”

Once you start to make a name for yourself in your area, make yourself available to do media interviews. Penman gets calls from media outlets and does TV and radio interviews about evolving hockey stories. “The NHL pension case was very interesting and it also allowed me to have all the heroes of my youth parade before me as they came into the courtroom. If you’re going to do this stuff, you might as well have fun at it.”

A strong web presence is very important for a niche practitioner. Hicken says that in terms of spending marketing dollars, “the greatest return on investment is establishing a really good, informative, authoritative website, and spending some money to get some marketing associated with that website so you rank high on the search engines.”

Once he started his video game practice, Bennett started to do a video game law report. “Every week we put together some interesting stories and we sent them off by e-mail.” Then a few years ago “we got tech savvy and created a blog and put that up on our corporate website, which was really unique at the time, there weren’t a lot of law firms blogging at that point. The ones who were weren’t putting blogs up on their corporate website.” That was a good source of work for him, but he also meets people at industry events. “Over the years we’re getting a lot of referrals, so we don’t have to go pounding the pavement anymore.”

Another creative way Bennett marketed his practice was to open an office in Second Life, an online 3-D virtual world inhabited by millions of people from around the world. “It’s a place where you can wander around as a character and interact with other people. We opened up an office there as well just to try it out and do something different.”

Educate yourself and connect with others in the field. The more knowledge you have about the area you’re interested in, the greater your chances of success. “If you keep your head up and your ears open, the opportunities are there,” says Penman, - adding, “find a passion, make a career of it.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto writer.