Are You Trying to Practice In Too Many Areas of Law?

Imagine you are at a dinner party.  The hostess introduces you to Dr. Jones, an up-and-coming medical doctor in your community.

You just moved into the neighborhood and need a new doctor.  So you ask her, “What’s your specialty?”

With a big smile, the doctor answers, “Oh, I’m a heart surgeon, I deliver babies, and I also solve acne problems in young people.”

Huh?!?  She’s a cardiologist, obstetrician, AND a dermatologist?

Let’s be honest.  You wouldn’t take this doctor seriously.  On the off-chance that she does perform heart surgery in the morning, deliver babies in the afternoon, and diagnose teenage acne on Saturdays, you’d question how good a doctor she is at all 3 disciplines.  Your doubt in her abilities will negatively impact the odds of you becoming her next patient.

Thankfully, you probably will never have this conversation with a medical doctor.   Unfortunately, you will have a similar conversation with a lawyer at some point.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced to a local attorney, ask them what type of law they practice, and they answer “Business formation, divorce, and criminal defense.”

When I hear an answer like this, I have the same response as in the doctor scenario above.  Is this a list of every type of case she’s ever practiced?  She can’t possibly be great at all of these practice areas.  If I ever need a criminal defense attorney, I’m going to call a specialist, not her.

In today’s world, I feel there are benefits to focusing your practice on one or 2 areas of the law.  One such benefit is eliminating doubt in the minds of your potential clients and referral sources.

If you’re a solo attorney, the more disparate practice areas you list, the more you begin to have less and less credibility as a lawyer just like the doctor above.

Let me give you an example.  I know a solo attorney who lists 6 main practice areas on her website.

  • Bankruptcy
  • Business Law
  • Criminal Defense
  • Family Law
  • Personal Injury
  • Wills and Trusts

I’m supposed to believe that she spends her days in court defending criminals, while negotiating settlements with insurance companies.  Then she mediates a child custody battle, and in her spare time she creates companies and files bankruptcy cases.  If I’m a potential client, I’m thinking to myself: “When is she supposed to get to my family trust?”

Whether or not she can do all of this, I won’t recommend clients to her.

Why not?  I feel she can’t possibly be great at everything she listed, and I don’t know exactly what she is great at.

However, I do know great solo attorneys who do fantastic work in each of these 6 areas.  They’ve built reputable practices around 1 or 2 “specialties”.  If I refer a client to them, I know that client will get great service.  I don’t have to wonder or doubt.

Why would I risk my reputation by referring clients to her when I can refer them to attorneys that I have more confidence in?

As a solo, you need to remove all doubt in the minds of potential clients and your referral sources in your ability to practice law well.

Don’t believe me?  Ask a non-attorney.

My husband and I are looking for a lawyer to handle some estate planning work.  I showed him the website of the above solo attorney and asked what he thought of her.  Immediately, he said “No.”  I asked why and he said “Why would I want a criminal attorney handling this?  We need to find someone who specializes in estate planning.”  In under 1 minute, he judged that she did not have the ability to handle our case.  (And my husband isn’t the only one making this judgment.)

You might be saying that his judgment is a bit harsh, that he doesn’t know her, and he barely had time to glance at the website.  But it’s not about truth, and the attorney’s actual abilities.  It’s about the potential client’s perception of her abilities.  If the client thinks she can’t, then she’s not getting his business.

While it is tempting to expand our service offerings, thinking we’ll attract more clients, the opposite just might be true.  The more practice areas you claim, someone will wonder whether you can possibly handle them all well.  And if that someone decides that you can’t possibly handle them all well, they won’t hire you.

And that’s a problem.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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9 comments on “Are You Trying to Practice In Too Many Areas of Law?

  • I understand and appreciate where you are coming from; however, as a new attorney how are you to gauge what you are “good” at without trying different things? I know right off the bat I don’t want to practice x,y,z but I would like to try a,b,c. As long as I am practicing competently and seeking out advice from specialists in that area, why not try?

    • By all means try different areas, just don’t try to be a full service law firm. That’s hard to sell as a solo. It’s about the marketing. The client has to FEEL that you are competent BEFORE they will even speak with you. You don’t want to give them any reason to think that you’re not.

      If the attorney in my post listed real estate, bankruptcy, and estate planning, I wouldn’t think twice. I could see how one client could have all of these issues, maybe in one matter.

      A friend of mine does this well. He advertises that he handles real estate and estate planning, Through this work, he does a lot of business formation, partnerships, non-profits for his estate planning clients. But can you see how it would be awkward for him to tell his estate planning clients that he’ll handle their divorce, car accident, and get them out of jail?

      I know of another attorney who has different websites for each area of law he practices (3) to avoid any marketing problems.

      • If your friend has a different website for every area of law he practices how is this an effective solution to the issue of resolving potential marketing problems if all three of his websites could be easily found with a simple google search? I am just curious to know how that actually works.

  • I agree. As a fairly new solo practitioner I struggled to figure out how to balance needing to take in a lot more than one or two areas of law but not have such a broad scope with my marketing that I couldn’t seriously develop any area of law. Instead I advertise three areas on my website, focus the vast majority of my efforts on one of those areas but still accept cases outside of those three areas when the opportunity presents itself.

  • As a 2L trying to decide if I want to go solo and how I will manage my practice, this article was golden!

  • Kelli, you are so right on. Today only the least sophisticated clients want a general practitioner, and they are looking for a discount lawyer. They are also more likely to have unrealistic expectations about what the lawyer should be able to do in their matter. So the lawyer frequently winds up with an unhappy client who slow pays or doesn’t pay the bill.

    If you limit the practice areas that you market, it doesn’t mean you have to turn away other business that you are capable of handling. It means that you can be more effective with your marketing time, money and energy when you choose a specific target audience.

    Kudos for shooting straight!

  • What’s the best way to decide what area to specialize in, if you find you are interested in more than one?

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