How to choose the right specialty

"What should I specialize in?" attorneys often ask me. "Find something you are passionate about," I usually answer. "You can be successful at almost anything, so you might as well find something you enjoy."

But sometimes it’s difficult to know what we enjoy. We may like certain aspects of one area (e.g., the large fees from PI cases) and other aspects of another (e.g., close relationship with a business client.)

And what if there is little demand for what you enjoy? Or too much competition?

There are no easy answers. Only lots of questions.

Start with an assessment of yourself, by answering questions like the following:

  • Which areas of the law fascinate you?
  • What do you do better than most?
  • What comes naturally to you?
  • What causes or issues do you care most about?
  • What kinds of clients do you enjoy working with?
  • If you had all the money you needed, and lots of free time, and you wanted to do some pro bono work, what would you do?

Be honest. Take a good look at yourself. It is important to know whether you LIKE speaking publicly, or merely tolerate it. Does writing come naturally to you, or is it something you just have to do?

Does litigation get your adrenaline flowing, and bring out the tiger in you? Or do you feel more at home doing transactional work — drafting, advising, negotiating?

Are you a fast-paced-think-on-your-feet kinda gal, or a I-need-to-have-quiet-so-I-can-think kinda guy?

Do you like charging by the hour or does a flat fee float your boat? How do you feel about contingency fees?

Describe your ideal day? What kinds of things are you doing? Where are you doing them? With whom are you doing them? What results are you getting?

As you answer these questions, make a list of ANY practice areas you might consider, however remote. Anything ON the list is a candidate; anything NOT on the list is not.

Congratulations! Somewhere on this list is your (new) specialty. Now, you just have to eliminate everything that you will NOT specialize in.

It’s time to do some research. You’ll need to read, of course, but also talk to people who are knowledgeable in these areas. Clients and prospective clients, referral sources, writers, other professionals, can all give you information and perspective.

Most of all, talk to attorneys who practice in these areas. Find out, from someone who is doing what you are considering, what it’s really like. Here are some questions to ask them:

  • What do you like best about your practice area? What do you dislike? What challenges do you have?
  • What will the future be like for those who practice in this area? What trends do you forsee?
  • Would you recommend this area to someone like me? Why or why not?
  • What is your typical day like? What do you do, where do you do it, with whom?

In doing your research, you’re looking for answers to these questions:

  • How much demand is there for a given service?
  • What future trends will affect this demand? (e.g., laws on the horizon, political or economic changes, Baby Boomers retirement, Jury trends, etc.)
  • How much competition exists and what kind is it? A lot of competition could mean the market is saturated or it could mean that there is a healthy, thriving market. A growing, hungry market with lots of weak competition could be a great place to stake your claim. A market with strong competition (firms that are better financed, more politically connected, better at marketing) could cause you major headaches.
  • Which areas are "commodities," (e.g., real estate closings and Chapter 7’s) and which make use of a higher level of skill? The latter pays better and is less susceptible to competition.
  • Which areas provide opportunities to "bundle" or package services to deliver a higher unit of sale?
  • Which areas have a clearly defined "back end,"  i.e., repeat engagements or ongoing work. A one-time divorce client provides income one time. A business client can provide a steady stream of income for many years.
  • Which area provides opportunities to cross-sell other services (or products)? Joint ventures with other lawyers and other professionals?
  • Which areas provide leverage, i.e., you bring in the business, someone else does the work? (If you MUST do the work, you will have a job for life; if someone else can do it, you can obtain freedom)
  • Which areas have the highest margins–the difference between what you charge and your cost to deliver the service?
  • Which areas have a ready source of quality employees available? To grow, you need to be able to hire people who can do the job.
  • Which areas allow you to obtain equity? Can you get stock in a client company? Points in a real estate deal?
  • Which areas have an established infrastructure of potential referral sources and/or networking opportunities?
  • Which areas involve "cure" and which offer "prevention"? The former is easier to market and usually pays better.

Keep asking questions, looking, comparing. Narrow you list of candidates to your top three.

Finally, imagine what your life will be like practicing in each of those three areas ten or fifteen years from now. Visualize a typical day. Put some detail into it, and really "feel" what it will be like.

As you look at yourself in your mind’s eye, ten years from now, specializing in each area, look to see if you’re smiling. If you are, that’s a good sign that you have chosen well.