Growing your niche practice

  • March 29, 2017
  • Julie Sobowale

Photo: Elizabeth Wozniak (left) and Lori Hill 

Elizabeth Wozniak made two crucial decisions in the early days of her law firm: she decided to focus on immigration law in a small market, Nova Scotia, and to use flat rates for billing. And those changes have paid off.

“People were saying ‘don’t do it’,” says Wozniak, who has been offering flat rates since 2010.  “We felt like it was the right thing to do, for transparency and to align our firm's interests with our clients. The more efficient we are, the better for us and the better for the clients. I started to question the advice other lawyers were giving me. 

“When people tell me I can’t do it, it motivates me to take the leap of faith.”

Is it time for your firm to take the leap? Small law firms, especially in niche markets, have the opportunity not only to grow but also to be more nimble and responsive to changes in the market.

Building a niche practice takes time. The first step is to become an expert in the field. Wozniak began learning about immigration law during her legal studies at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, where she volunteered to help refugees. After graduating in 2001, she worked at Cragg Law in family law and developed a pro bono practice in immigration law.

When former refugee clients started coming to her because they wanted to bring a spouse or a parent to Canada, Wozniak decided to make immigration law part of her practice – it was an area of law she not only loved, but was good at too.

“People said I shouldn’t do immigration full-time, that there’s no money in it and that the market is too small in Nova Scotia,” she says. “Again, I was getting this advice that ran counter to my intuition. So I thought about it a lot and decided it was a good idea.”

Wozniak started her own law firm in 2012 focused on immigration law. Even though she is in a small market, she was able to build a steady clientele. As the firm grew, more lawyers were brought into the firm. Lori Hill began working with Wozniak in 2007 focused on immigration law and two more lawyers were added last year along with an articling clerk. To help manage the hiring process, the firm created a hiring committee.

“It’s never been easy hiring because we’re all new at this,” says Wozniak. “Sometimes we put out a call and sometimes it’s word of mouth. We haven’t figured it out yet. We hire people that demonstrate an interest in the subject matter and can work collaboratively. We are constantly critiquing each other's work so we can’t have someone with a big ego." 

Being small has its advantages. Because Wozniak is the founder and the managing partner she has to do the “aggravating” things that take time away from file work, like networking, finding new clients and blogging, but she was also able to create a firm that she wanted to work at. She remains the sole partner and led the rebranding efforts when the firm became North Star Immigration last year and launched a new website.

 “I was really conscious of running a modern law practice, like having to follow Google Analytics and making sure the financials work. There is a level of operational decision-making that is my responsibility and the other lawyers in my office don't have to worry about that.”

Law firms looking to expand need to think carefully about what they need before making hiring decisions. Wozniak recommends having set guidelines and a long-term business strategy that new staff can understand.

“Streamline as much as you can so there is a clear system in place,” says Wozniak. “You don’t want to be daunted by the big picture. Know what you’re trying to do. In terms of technology, you want to opt for something you can maintain yourself easily or for cheap or – better yet – for free.” 

Dale Barrett has a clear vision for his tax law firm: he wants it to be a place that takes the fear of taxes out of clients. After articling at Tory’s, he started Barrett Tax Law in 2008. A former software engineer, he was drawn to tax law because of the need for affordable tax advisory services.

“In criminal law, the entire power of a sovereign government is focused against one individual,” says Barrett. “There is the prospect of an unfair prosecution if the individual does not have access to a lawyer. There is not legal aid for tax matters, although many Canadians can’t afford a tax lawyer to adequately defend them. This is a shame.”

Barrett started slow, taking on files he knew he could handle. He began to give free consultations and built a referral service with accountants across Canada, where he gets most of his clients.

“I wanted to differentiate myself by being more accessible,” says Barrett. “I didn’t want to scare people like some other lawyers. Fear-mongering has never been my style. The truth is that in tax matters it is very unlikely that people are going to be thrown in prison. That is reserved for the most serious cases. People need to hear this.”   

Barrett Tax Law has grown from one lawyer to five lawyers in three offices. Going through the hiring process takes preparation, including determining what you need, what skills you’re looking for and the responsibilities the lawyer will have to take on.

“Growing your firm is a difficult process,” says Barrett. “You don’t want to bring in a stranger off the street and teach them your secret recipe only to have them leave and compete with you.  But you can’t grow without the help, so ultimately you have to give up some degree of control."

When growing your practice, it can seem that it takes a long time to get noticed. Don’t despair. Keep working hard to be noticed.

“Don’t be frustrated,” says Barrett. “Large law firms are not built overnight. Tory’s didn’t get that large in nine years. I keep telling myself that. You have to grow at your pace.” 

Julie Sobowale is a freelance journalist and communications consultant based in Ottawa.

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