The Big Question: 'Should You Create a Niche Practice?"

There is a particularly lively debate going on over at Solo Practice University in a community started by the inimitable Chuck Newton called ‘The Third Wave Law Practice”.  He is a huge proponent of niche practices and is extraordinarily creative at finding areas of uniqueness to make one competitive in the marketplace.

I’ve chosen to remain on the sidelines because I tend to fall outside this debate because when starting out as a new solo I think the niche right out of the chute, unless you have extensive experience prior to opening a practice, can be a trap and derail you before you ever get your engines going.

I’m going to offer a different perspective on the whole concept of  ‘niche’ in this post and my next.

There is much discussion these days that in order to succeed as a solo practitioner you must ‘find your niche.’  However, in the legal profession, when the term ‘niche’ is used, it is more often then not used inaccurately or incompletely.  It has generally come to be associated with offering legal services in a given legal practice area such as bankruptcy or real estate.  And by extension you are defined in this very limiting way.  I propose, this is totally backwards and ruins many a solo practitioner’s best efforts to create a thriving practice and fulfilling life.

According to Wiktionary, a niche is:

(in biology) “A function within an ecological system to which an organism is especially suited.”

(by extension) : “Any position or opportunity for which one is well-suited, such as a particular market in business.”

Therefore, a niche in the legal profession is a particular market for which you are best suited to offer your legal services.

This, by the way, is not semantics.  This is an important concept when you are deciding how you can position yourself to a specific target audience and it is based upon the following:

1.  Your ‘natural community’ which can be defined as:

  • geographic
  • ethnic
  • religious
  • sexual orientation
  • gender
  • major life experiences
  • education
  • professional experience, and more..

2.  The specific needs of a defined market such as:

  • Lesbian couples looking to adopt;
  • Special Needs Trusts for those with a particular degenerative disease
  • Animal Law, specifically challenging states and municipalities and their regulations

Let’s give a more obvious example:

You are double minority, bilingual Hispanic female establishing your life in Virginia.  You grew up travelling the world as the child of career military parents who are divorced.

In this example there are many ‘natural communities’ which you can relate to and target.

First, you are a bilingual Hispanic, understand both the military and Hispanic communities and have experienced the divorce process as a child.  You reside near military bases.

Providing you have an interest in cultivating your ‘natural community’, you would be a very attractive lawyer for Hispanics in the military because your ‘natural community” already is pre-disposed to relating to you IF you position yourself correctly.

Do you need to limit yourself to a practice area if you’ve defined your niche as “Hispanic military?” Not necessarily.

Remember, a niche is:

“Any position or opportunity for which one is well-suited, such as a particular market in business.”

That being said, you are not limited in your actual practice areas unless you choose to be.  (And this is where I and others part company. Many lawyers believe you have to pick one or two practice areas as the law is too complex to do many practice areas effectively.  I don’t necessarily buy into this broad-brushed statement or the basis for the statement, but this is Part 2 of ‘Should You Create a Niche Practice’ .)  It depends upon you and who you are targeting and their needs.

However, given your life experiences and personal desires you could now offer unique insight into military divorces.  But you may decide to work on other matters unique to the military or Hispanics in the military or be a generalist within this ‘niche community’ offering all manner of legal services that specifically serve this defined audience.

I’ll continue Part II in my next blog post.

Any thoughts on how you create a niche?

This entry was posted in Marketing. Bookmark the permalink.

Enjoy our blog posts with lunch! Enter your email address and we'll send you an email each time a new blog post is published.

Want your free copy of Business Call is Back and Attorney Guide to Virtual Receptionists? Subscribe by email below and you will be able to download them immediately.

17 comments on “The Big Question: 'Should You Create a Niche Practice?"

  • Although most lawyers build a niche around a substantive area of practice, I – and a number of other contract lawyers who focus on providing legal research and writing services to other lawyers – have chosen to build a skills-based niche instead. Lawyers who act as trained neutrals (arbitrators and mediators) have a skills-based niche. Can you think of others?

  • One bone I have to pick with the niche arguments is that it’s incomplete. Not to any post in particular, but usually you hear that in order to excel, you have to have a niche. Don’t waste your time with multiple areas of law, how can you be a criminal, divorce, bankruptcy, personal injury, business, and estate planning at the same time?

    Pseudo straw man argument aside, these articles never discuss how do you choose a niche when you’re first starting out? What if you choose the wrong one and now you’re out a few months all the while you have bills to pay and other cases were available? Of course nobody would turn those down.

    On the flip side I agree that one shouldn’t try to be everything. Identify areas you would like to practice, reasonable ones of course. Identify demographic of clients you are most likely able to target, and what practice areas they require. Compare the two, or combine the two. Start there, advertise towards your target demo, and your niche will develop.

    Unless you already have an established niche, I personally don’t see the point in trying to develop it. I think the successful ones more often than not come naturally, but then again, that is only my humble non-scientific opinion.

  • Joseph,

    I agree with your take in many ways. To know and choose what you want to do as a niche (and a niche can even be general practice as there are few of these out there) is well neigh impossible before practicing for a while. As I discussed over in Chuck’s group, I started out in the Virginia AG’s office knowing I wanted to go to court and that’s about it.

    It was only after I left the AG’s office for my prior firm that construction practice even crossed my mind, much less entered into my thoughts as a “niche” I wanted to practice in. In short, I fell into my niche and found I enjoyed the people and issues involved so I kept going.

    I do however agree that once you have a niche in mind (be it geographic, practice area or clientelle) continuing to grow that niche can be very personally rewarding and fun.

  • @Susan, definitely, agreed 100% there. Its your blog posts that I referenced when I said a lot of niche’s seem to develop accidentally/naturally (your blog and of course).

    @Chris brings up another good point. If the prediction of the demise of the general practice is to be believed, well the one-stop shop general practitioner may become yet another rare niche :-)

  • Excellent post. Rings similar to me while formulating a plan to target a specific demographic (local Vietnamese community). The Vietnamese community usually wants Personal Injury, SSI/SSD, Consumer law, Immigration. Those are the requests I get the most, and that’s just from family! They have other questions, but these form the core from what I’ve seen

    “Adaptive Specialist” – Perfect term right there! And would be great for marketing for Bruce.

  • @Joseph, I don’t disagree with you. That’s the point. The pro-niche argument says ‘you must’. I believe there are many roads and many niches. It’s not that cut and dry. You want to be in control of who you target but how do you decide who your target will be?

    Many lawyers ‘know’ who they want to target and what they want to do. And they go for it immediately. However, this doesn’t always work for everyone. They have one mission and then they get a referral and they try something new while their ‘passion’ practice area gets going only to discover something more exciting and different then they ever anticipated.

    I know too many stories like this.

    Then the economy comes a long in an up or down cycle and their ‘passion’ is tied to the economy and they are in trouble.

    I prefer versatility when first starting out so as not to foreclose opportunities and to stay nimble and practice-area agile. I’ve been known to be against specialization certification in certain instances.

    And I do believe in the organic approach to growing your practice when you first start out because you simply need to treat the opening of a practice like dinner at a delicious buffet full of foods you’ve never tried You’ll learn quick enough what you like and what you don’t, what you are good at and what you are not (with the understanding you are doing the work competently and ethically.)

    Like the world, THE ‘LAW’ is too big to know what you are going to practice for the rest of your life, the same way you can’t know where you are going to live for the rest of your life.

  • When I work with solo and small firm lawyers, most of them are really afraid of the concept of developing a niche. I tell them that it doesn’t mean that they have to turn away work that doesn’t fall in their niche. It means that they are developing a more efficient and cost-effective marketing approach.

    When you have a well defined target market (whether in terms of your expertise or the demographics of your client base), you know better where to encounter your potential clients. You can write for publications they read, attend industry or interest conferences they attend, speak to associations they belong to, write blogs with keywords they search on, etc. It’s the difference between firing buckshot with a shotgun and being a sharpshooter with your target in the cross-hairs.

    Today most clients look for a lawyer who understands the specific problem they need help with. By analogy, if you had a problem with your knee, would you rather go to an orthopedist or a general practitioner? I am betting that, all other things being equal, you would not only prefer an orthopedist, you would want one who specializes in knees.

    Some clients expect their lawyer to set up their corporation, handle their divorce and draft their will. Those usually are not very sophisticated clients, however. If they don’t already have a lawyer relationship, they tend to shop on price, and may have some pretty unrealistic expectations. Additionally, technology is resulting in commoditization of legal services. That means that prices will continue to be driven down even more for “entry level” work. That will make it tough to survive as a general practitioner, except in special circumstances like the “rural lawyer.” And I would argue that the rural lawyer has a niche.

    All that being said, it doesn’t mean that you can’t ever have more than one niche, or that you can’t change the niche you market to as you get more experience or the economic climate changes. Many bankruptcy lawyers do some commercial litigation or some kind of transactional practice during boom years, for example.

    If you really don’t know what area of law you like, and you don’t have any clients, right at first, maybe your niche is “friends and family.” ;-)

  • A niche doesn’t have to consume your entire practice (like Chris’ construction law or Tom Goldstein’s Supreme Court practice), it can be like icing on the cake – the “wow” factor of another specialty. It’s the being THAT lawyer concept that I described in my recent post on the topic – though I’ve also written about niches multiple times over the years (search niche in the search box):


  • Too true Carolyn, and to be honest, I keep my fingers in a couple of non-construction cases a year to keep things with a bit of variety. I only advocate going “whole hog” into a particular area if you truly love that area.

    Also, construction law is a broad enough practice area that my niche is pretty broad and defined as much by the clients I have as the legal area of practice.

    • Chris and Carolyn:

      I agree with both of you. I have a broad personal injury practice that I have broken down into several key niches. One, being so absurdly small (food poisoning from oysters) that I am one of the only people who market for it. After spending hundreds of hours on the first oyster case I handled, I decided to not let all that experience and knowledge go to waste. So I have a one page listing as But it would be crazy to try and drill down my practice to this one area.

      I have found that by slowly narrowing the areas of law that I like to handle I have actually grown my practice. But, I agree with Chris, you have to love the niche your in. If not, you’re in for a long and grueling career.

  • Susan, first I just have to say that I am so excited that your idea has finally jumped (leaped) off the ground. I am happy to announce that I an currently enrolled @ SPU and even though many of “my classes” have not formally or officialy started, I am having the time of my life and learning quite a bit also.

    I was drawn to the Niche or no Niche hot topic because of my own circumstances. I am a career proseuctor of twenty years-turned Crminal defense attorney {the majority of my practice is criminal defense} When I hung my shingle just two years ago, I was scared to death that the phone would never even ring, much less a client actually walk through the door. Much to my pleasant surprise I immediately became innundated with clients. More than I thought I could manage. And guess what? In the beginning I would guess that 95% of my clients were seeking the services of a good criminal defense “TRIAL” attorney. So I suppose one could argue that I have a niche, but I did not create or find my niche; my niche found me. I imagine that my clients either knew me, knew of me or heard of me as the former chief assistant District Attorney who won 99.999% of her trials.

    I have recently spread my wings and now I handle a dozen or so Civil rights violation cases. Once again-I did not start out to represent people who are filing actions against the police, jail, city, Parish, Sheriff, Warden etc. {I mean I did not start out in my solo practice chomping @ the bit to commit political and economic suicide} Circumstances however as they were, put me in the position of starting my first Federal Court title 1983 Civil rights suit when one of my clients was brutally attacked by the Sheriff, and just my good luck—it was all captured on video. Now I seem to get the call from every clown in town who wants to sue the police and make a lot of money they say to me with the $igns dancing in their eyes. I do however turn down approximately 95% of the wanna be civil rights clients, but if there is some evidence that a person was treated badly, hurt, denied medical treatent or any of the plethora of other complaints that I have found( much to my sadness) is more prevalant in my rural area than I would have ever believed, I do not hesitate to file a action against my former collegues as the city or Parish Jail. So I suppose once again a niche found me, not the other way around.

    I am torn on the niche issue. I am happy with criminal defense work and it is certainly what I do best. In the beginning, however and now during my drought months am I to turn down potential clients whose legal need does not fall within the realm of my “Niche”?

    While I do not have the desire, money or the time to become an expert in the numeorus areas of the practice of law, especially those which are completely foreign to me, I do not see anything wrong, morally, ethically or in any way, for me to take on clients who are seeking representation on a family law matter divorce, child custody etc. or an injury case or a bankruptcy etc. Is this what is meant by a solo practcioner offering legal help in fields outside of her Niche?

  • @Melissa – First, I’m thrilled you are so happy at Solo Practice University. Second, you’ve answered your own question by your actions – criminal defense extending to Civil Rights Violations. You’ve already stepped outside the niche that found you into other areas which made sense. As others have commented, many practice areas have cross-over areas of law which, in order to do your ‘niche’ practice area well, you must become conversant in. What is wrong with becoming ‘more conversant’ without proclaiming to the world expertise. Expertise, as you learned, is a term others bestow upon you, not you upon yourself. That’s just my opinion. When others find you more knowledgeable in an area of law or more competent then the average bear, well they will refer to you as an expert. (This is different then being certified as a specialist where your granting agency allows you to call yourself a specialist.)

    So, is there anything wrong with it? No, there is something quite right about it in my book.

  • I agree that whether to niche or not depends on many things, but mostly it’s about marketing. Are you a rural lawyer? Then to limit your practice to one area doesn’t make sense. But if you are living in an area where competition is stiff and there is sufficient market size to support a profitable practice as a Hispanic military divorce lawyer, then niching makes sense. Law is a business, and business planning and marketing should be part of the equation. Expertise in your niche is important but so is the ability to focus your marketing.

    • Victoria,

      Welcome to the conversation.

      I totally agree with you. In many respects the density of your market and saturation level of providers dictates the depth and width of your focus.

Comments are closed automatically 60 days after the post is published.