While numerous considerations may encourage small-firm lawyers to become generalists, some are also finding that maintaining a specialized focus can provide a fulfilling career trajectory.
Specialization allows lawyers to more quickly dive into a particular matter, reducing friction and bringing about a quicker resolution, says Colorado-based attorney Megan Douglah of Lyda Law Group.
“This, in turn, more frequently leads to happier clients, which is always my ultimate goal.”
We spoke with three experienced attorneys at small firms who focus on specific niches.
While each attorney maintains a specialized focus, they also utilize their knowledge of the law to address matters outside their chosen niche when the demand arises.
In practice, this means “specialization” can look more like choosing a group of related focus areas rather than setting hard-and-fast boundaries on the matters you choose to handle.
Here, we share advice from this group.
Focus On Client Service
Douglah, who takes on a variety of real estate, IP, and estate-related matters, describes her current practice as focused “largely on representing tenants in landlord/tenant disputes.”
She says her experience in the niche has let her find her groove and spend time improving her work processes, rather than learning new areas of the law.
She’s created numerous templates — demand letters, complaints, etc. — that can be reapplied to similar matters.
“I’ve also seen what types of legal arguments frequently do and don’t work,” she says. “In short, I am able to draw on my past experiences to cut down significantly on the amount of time spent to bring the matter to a resolution.”
Having learned her niche so thoroughly also allows Douglah and her colleagues to be extra transparent about pricing with the firm’s clients.
Douglah and Lyda Law, which has offices in Colorado, California, Texas, Washington, Florida, and Tennessee, take a unique approach to attorney fees, offering predetermined flat rates for frequently handled matters like lease drafting and review or security deposit disputes.
This approach is possible because of the firm’s experience in its areas of specialization, Doughlah says.
“These are our primary areas of focus, and we can anticipate approximately how much time we’ll likely need to devote to the matter.”
Enjoy Your Freedom
A major benefit to leaving bigger organizations behind and specializing at a small firm, according to attorney Felix Shipkevich, is the “flexibility and intellectual creativity” that comes with working on a smaller scale.
Shipkevich launched his firm of the same name — which focuses on financial regulation and compliance with a special emphasis on cryptocurrency — in 2011 after stints in a midsize firm and as a corporate in-house counsel. The firm now has offices in New York, Miami, and London.
He’s also a professor at Hofstra Law with a textbook on crypto regulations in the works. His academic side drives him to tackle particularly interesting or complex matters, even if those same matters aren’t the most profitable.
“I don’t need to run it by a managing partner and ask permission,” he says. “I also have the flexibility to set my own rate. For instance, I gave a significant discount to an existing client … just because I wanted to work on this one case.”
Don’t Go All-In
For young attorneys especially, it can be challenging to develop an area of specialization without endangering the growth of their practice.
“The advice I give to every young attorney is not to be pigeonholed into one practice area,” says Havertown, Pennsylvania-based personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Daniel J. Siegel. “If you are, and that area dries up, then it becomes a challenge to learn other areas.”
His solution? Maintaining focus in multiple, but still specific, areas of the law.
“I have always focused my practice on a few areas so that I can maximize my professional strengths while also allowing me to develop a reputation that brings clients,” he says.
Siegel adds that he launched his solo practice in 2005, only to be overpowered by larger personal injury firm’s advertising budgets and, a few years later, the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis.
“Thankfully, I always had other skills and interests, and my practice pivoted to serving as appellate counsel, preparing other lawyers for trial, handling ethical and disciplinary matters, and being a tech/cybersecurity guru,” Siegel says.
His firm also handles matters related to estate planning and Social Security and supplemental security income benefits.
“The result is a busy and intellectually fulfilling practice that maximizes my skills while giving me a couple of niches in which few attorneys practice.”
Ethan Beberness is a Brooklyn-based writer covering legal tech, small law firms, and in-house counsel for Above the Law. His coverage of legal happenings and the legal services industry has appeared in Law360, Bushwick Daily, and elsewhere.