Tag Archives: Practice Area

Spontaneous Exclamations: Finding your niche…with bacon

Adam Katz is a senior associate at Harrison & Held, LLP.  He concentrates his practice on federal & state tax matters, mergers & acquisitions, entity structure and formation, commercial finance, and non-profit law.  Adam can be reached at (312) 753-6110 or akatz@harrisonheld.com.  Comments on all posts are welcome!

Before we begin, I just want to say: Welcome back, I hope you enjoy your stay and feel free to leave a comment!  While I’m not offering a free continental breakfast with those deep-fried French toast sticks, lukewarm yogurt, and unlimited bacon strips, I will offer you my musings every Thursday— a close second to infinite bacon.

Today, let’s discuss an extremely important matter your law school overlords may not have emphasized: how you find your niche, aka that link under your name on your law firm profile that lops you into your “Practice Area.”

Much of the time, when attorneys discuss their “niche” they are referring to a subarea of expertise within their practice.  As I have perceived it, junior attorneys find their niche in one of three ways: (i) you know what type of law you want to practice as of day one; (ii) you get thrown into a practice group and never leave; or (iii) your niche finds you.

If you know what type of law you want to practice from the day they hand you your tassel hat, good work.  If you stay in that area for the rest of your career, I’m impressed.  If you have the opportunity, there’s no shame in branching out and trying other areas.  After completing a summer clerkship with the 2nd District Illinois Appellate Court, I was set on becoming an appellate litigator and taking on those oft-fire-breathing panels up high.  Then, I was lured away by the temptation of tortuous tax calculations, and here I am, happy as a clam.  So my advice to you is: Reach outside your comfort zone and you might be rewarded.  Also, maybe bring a calculator.

If you get thrown into your unwanted practice group, make the best of it.  If you had your heart set on M&A and you get placed in real estate litigation, you’re certainly allowed to be disappointed, but keep an open mind.  If it’s not your cup o’ tea, see last week’s blog post and start networking with attorneys who may offer you work in your desired area!  A successful transition to a new area requires that the commanding attorneys trust you and want you on their team.  Convince them!  Keep in mind that sometimes you may need to be politically savvy in the office to slowly make your way to another group.  Law firms can be made up of various personalities that have the tendency to clash over the little things.  You don’t want to be caught in the middle.

Sometimes, your niche finds you.  It did for me!  As a summer associate, I was placed on a tax matter and that was it—I was set on corporate and tax. Your niche will likely arise out of chance—one day you will handle a matter and truly enjoy it.  Over time, you may pursue the same types of matters and, voila! You earn expertise in your practice and create happiness at the same time.

Bringing that joy with you to work really does make all of the difference.  In summary, while you may not love the area you are in, be patient, grasshopper, your passion may leap out from behind a corner and tackle you at any moment… and that is better than unlimited bacon.

Plastics

Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.

For folks of my generation, that one word piece of career advice from a family friend to the young Dustin Hoffman in the movie “The Graduate” still ranks as one of the most memorable movie lines.  But it does reflect a real-life conundrum: One of the questions that you either ask yourself or others is “what kind of law should I practice?”

You can take the approach I did, which was to have a vague idea, which you abandoned for various reasons, and then let serendipity take you for a ride and hope it’s pleasant.  In my case, that worked.  I represented some fascinating businesses during my career, from robotics to face recognition system vendors to telematics hardware and software vendors (think OnStar®) and handled a variety of cutting edge legal issues.  But if you are the kind who would like to give a little push to pure blind luck, and steer the ship, here are my thoughts.

You will not starve learning about intellectual property law for the foreseeable future.  I am not just talking patents here, so if you’re not an engineer, you’re still in the running.  The “ideas and imagination” economy that the world is hurtling headlong into will value creativity to an unprecedented degree, and protecting ideas and other forms of intellectual property will be a full-time job for many that will be fascinating and probably rewarding.  Deep philosophical questions about patenting new life forms, genetic engineering and solving the food supply problems facing the world, using technology to solve the fossil fuel and water shortages represent challenges that will demand the best efforts of the best technologists – and their counsel.  Entrepreneurs and lawyers seem to be more comfortable with each other these days, and getting comfortable with technology, the current law both in IP as well as ancillary fields such as e-commerce, privacy, and communications and where it’s headed will serve you well.

While we’re at it, let’s also focus on privacy.  Data may be king, but data about people is going to be gold, and what you can/should do with it is going to be a very fertile field for lawyers for years to come.  The basic divide between the European Union “opt-in” and the US “opt-out” approach to data use is just the first of many such issues that will keep clear thinkers occupied for a long time.  Data mining and correlation, coupled with a virtually endless flow of technology developments that will enable things that were impossible yesterday, will fuel a never-ending debate about what should and should not be permitted.  Legislative solutions v. voluntary industry self-regulation are going to combine to provide full employment in this field.

My last choice might be somewhat surprising, but it’s dispute resolution.  America’s legal legacy of litigiousness doesn’t sell well overseas.  As the global economy becomes ever more integrated, there will be even more disputes about things as mundane as a lost order in a plane crash and as momentous as how to handle transnational water disputes.  New thinking about ways to resolve conflict has to proceed, as endless litigation over these issues has inherent limitations and less acceptance among non-US parties.  Creating new models for third-party facilitation, or direct governmental multi-lateral action will be critical to finding solutions that work.  This option might be particularly attractive to those political science majors who were wondering what exactly their degrees qualified them to do, besides go to law school.

This list is certainly not definitive, and you can probably add 20 equally valid options.  But the future will be here — soon.

Practice area focus and brand management

J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of ALR/PRA, Inc., a full service law practice management agency.  Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations and marketing.  Nick also shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

Attorneys in transition should assess and decide on a practice area and market their strongest brand.  Too often attorneys gain experience in one practice area then jump around to test the waters in other substantive areas.  You can do this to broaden your skills sets, so long as you are careful not to leave a trail of confusion.

If you are passionate about work in a certain practice area elaborate your practical experience and promote the sum of your potential contributions.   People can tell whether you are committed to certain work.  Likewise, they can often tell when you are trying to sell yourself in a practice area that may not be a natural match.

Brand management requires you to communicate what you do on a consistent basis.  If you’re found hopping around various practice areas you will appear fragmented and wishy washy – not the impression you want to make if you are a serious attorney.

Too often popular practice areas attract mismatched talent.  When I started law school in the late 90s intellectual property was a rather unknown practice area. The only people interested in copyright, trademark and patent law were the students with science backgrounds who attended The John Marshall Law School for their acclaimed IP department.  Today, and largely through social media and online exposure, intellectual property is a really “hip” practice area, attracting many who think trademarks are cool.  While I’m certainly not disputing the “cool” factor, the work can be quite challenging and is not for everyone.  Consider the “cool” factor long term.

After carefully assessing your background and developed skills sets, consider natural practice area matches.  Be careful not to let financial considerations be your guide.  Family law, for example, can be very lucrative; however the market is highly sensitive to economic swings and geographic location.  Those who went into family law to make big bucks often end up cursing their decision if they are not personally invested in truly serving the best interests of domestic relations.

If you engage in substantive work outside your practice area make sure you learn the subject well before you accept a client for same.  Malpractice may not pay a claim if you are operating negligently outside your abilities.  The ABA offers several publications concerning ethics and considerations for attorneys who need practice area resources.  Remember that experience can never be substituted with an IICLE volume.

Practice area transfers

J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of ALR/PRA, Inc., a full service law practice management agency.  Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations and marketing.  Nick also shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

Some say that tort reform hurts the business of personal-injury law.  When economic factors trigger different types of legal service needs, many service providers shift gears to new legal practice areas.  There are several considerations and options for practice area transfers.

You have all likely known a colleague who worked in insurance defense and that’s how you know generally know and remember them.  Imagine that you see them a few times in court on insurance defense cases.  All seems well with your friendly insurance defense guy until one day he takes an in-house counsel position at the insurance company.  Not only will your friend not be in court as often, his day is likely going to change drastically.

Like the insurance defense attorney, we all develop specialized skills sets in practice areas by continuing to gain practical experience in each practice area.  Over time we become valuable attorneys when we have navigated complex and various matters and have developed a feel for your area of law.  When considering transferring to another practice area, it makes sense to assess the assets you possess in one area of law and consider whether they are transferrable.

Your practice area may be dead, you will have to transfer, ask the attorneys who used to live off of real estate closings.  This can be an inevitable situation and if you find yourself in this predicament, fear not, resources are quick and easy to find.  Many general practitioners have built trips to the law library into their schedule so they could quickly research a potential client’s case in an area of law they’ve not previously navigated.  If you have to involuntarily change course in your career, make sure you locate and learn from a trusted and ethical attorney in your new practice area, someone who can help you avoid some pitfalls.

When the other side is greener, you may feel persuaded to change.  If you dislike transactional work, civil litigation may sound really appealing to you when you want to draft great pleadings and take cases to the appellate courts after a battle at trial.  The reality of litigation may be quite different than you expected on the day to day routine and set of unique obstacles.  Try asking a small firm litigator if they have time for lunch.  Seriously, if you take someone to lunch they may impart some wisdom to help you make an informed decision.

Testing the waters of partnerships requires trust and patience.  Partnering can be tailored to each unique work relationship.  You can add a partner with another practice area and you can learn from your new partner as you go and eventually you can pick up their new practice area.  Whatever you do, don’t quit your day job until you’re sure the new setup is going to last.