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Many solo and small firm practitioners encounter the same problem: how to generate sufficient revenue to pay the bills. If initial capital is unlimited, this can be easily done through hired services. However, not everyone has that luxury when starting a practice. This article does not provide a quick fix by any means, but it provides a basic framework that, when followed, should help attorneys develop a steady word-of-mouth referral stream within 6 months or less.
Principle 1: Master Your Niche
Too many young attorneys make the mistake of opening a practice and taking any work that comes their way. While this may seem appealing at first, it can quickly dilute your practice area and your skills to a point where you are unable to differentiate yourself from other legal professionals in your area. Developing a niche practice is a much more sustainable business model, especially for new attorneys.
Identify Your Niche: Why are you practicing law? What interests you? What cause can you identify with? While your practice may have one or two general practice areas, choose a niche that you can promote. This niche needs to be something that you can master and in which you can become an authority within 6 months. For example, while it’s doubtful you will become the preeminent personal injury attorney in your area within that timeframe, maybe you can become the local dog bite expert in that period. For intellectual property practices, develop a niche in expedited service mark filings. For criminal law, become the local authority on THC-positive impaired-driving charges. Whatever your practice area, identify a niche that you care about, that is needed, and that you can master in a short period.
Develop Your Niche: Know your niche inside and out. For every common issue you encounter in your niche, you should know exactly where you stand with the code and case law. Get to a point where you know exactly what needs to be done without needing to do research on each element. Instead, you should only need to research when you need to: 1) check your gut; or 2) look into a rare and unique aspect of that type of case. If you haven’t reached that point, dig deeper. This will help you serve your clients and to boost your confidence in your ability to represent them.
Maintain Your Mastery: Keep apprised of updates in the law. Be humble enough to accept advice, correction, and input from other professionals. Expand your mastery into other niches within that practice area. Read and write about your niche on a weekly basis. Always question your methods and practices in light of every client’s fact pattern, and be willing to adjust.
Principle 2: Broadcast Your Niche
Once you have developed a skill through which you are uniquely equipped to help clients, you need to let them know about it through any and all appropriate channels.
Avoid a “Gimme” Attitude: Too often, new business owners in any industry will open a business, panic when clients don’t come knocking right away, and respond by asking everyone they meet for referrals. Not only is this bad taste, but it often backfires as a turn-off to those who could be great referral sources. There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, but only ask for referrals from close friends and family, or in the context of a networking group or community where asking for referrals is encouraged.
Meet with Your Referral Sources: Instead of asking for referrals, a more effective method of finding new referral sources is to: 1) identify professionals in complementary industries, including other attorneys occupying a different niche; 2) ask them about themselves and about their services; 3) ask them about their niche or something that sets them apart, specifically how they are equipped to service your clients; and 4) add value to them in some way. I have found that educational materials about your niche can be particularly effective in adding value to other professionals and in promoting your expertise. In this approach, you can build a relationship with other professionals without even asking for referrals. Through this relationship, referrals flow naturally as needs arise.
Beware of Exclusive Alliances: While there is nothing wrong with referral relationships, it’s a good idea to be wary of other professionals seeking exclusive referral arrangements. For example, estate planning attorneys are constantly approached by investment and insurance salespeople promising a steady stream of clients referred in exchange for an exclusive referral arrangement. Ethics concerns aside, aligning exclusively with someone in a field whose representatives outnumber you 30-to-1 is rarely a sound business model, even if aligning with a top producer. Instead, find ways to identify unique strengths of different providers to be able to refer your clients to the best service provider for their need.
Get Out of the Office: You need to constantly make new relationships outside of the office or your day-to-day routine. You can do this on your own or through community and networking organizations. Some effective facilitators include music and arts organizations, chambers of commerce, BNI, Toastmasters, Rotary Club, Lions Club, and Corporate Alliance. It is critical that you be involved with these organizations because you want to, and not because you must. Know the culture of each organization and adopt it through your involvement. Do not actively promote your services during community involvement. Instead, participate and make a point of learning as much as you can about others. In doing so, you will naturally have others want to learn about you. You will find that, without treating each person as someone at which you can throw a sales pitch, referrals will start to come in because people like you and trust you.
Publish Content: Whether through print media, radio waves, handouts, lectures, or the Internet, develop a library of content through which prospective clients can find out more about your niche before committing to a meeting. However and wherever you publish content, its creation costs nothing more than your time. You can pay for others to adapt, optimize, or advertise the content if you want, but as a minimum, create it and publish it in some way. As you do so, your writing skills will improve and you will be forced to think about your niche in ever-increasing contexts.
While not a guaranteed way to generate revenue within a week or two, this method will help solo and small firm attorneys cultivate meaningful relationships leading to a steady word-of-mouth referral stream within 6 months or less. The trick is to identify, develop, and master a niche that you care about, is needed, and that is narrow enough to master within 6 months. Then, get the word out through meaningful contacts with other professionals and members of the community.
W. Tyler Melling is an estate planning solo practitioner in Cedar City, Utah at Melling Law, P.C. In addition to his law practice, Tyler teaches classes in estate planning and probate law at Southern Utah University and is the author of The Utah Uniform Probate Code: A Quick Reference Guide for Practitioners and Students (2nd edition) and Estate Planning for Utah's Middle Class (forthcoming).
W. Tyler Melling
Attorney & Counselor at Law
Melling Law, P.C.
66 W Harding Ave, Suite C-5
Cedar City, Utah 84720
LinkedIn: W. Tyler Melling
Utahns (especially Legislators and Lobbyists) breathed a collective
sigh of relief with the close of the Utah General Legislative Session
on March 9. In contrast with with the gridlock seen in Washington and
several states, Utah lawmakers passed 535 bills and a $16+ Billion
budget over a fast-paced 45 days. Here’s a recap of what happened,
with a particular focus on issues of interest to the Bar.
Administration of the Courts
The Utah State Bar actively opposed H.B. 93, Judicial Nominating
Process Amendments. This bill eliminated the Commission on Criminal
and Juvenile Justice’s ability to establish evaluation criteria for
judicial nominees. This bill passed the House but failed to receive a
favorable recommendation in the Senate Judiciary & Law Enforcement
Committee. Our thanks to the many attorneys who contacted their
senators and representatives to express concerns about this bill.
The Bar supported the addition of a Fifth District Court Judge through
H.B. 77. This position was funded by the Legislature and the
application process has already opened.
With the support of the Bar, Sen. Weiler sponsored an amendment to
Rep. Kwan’s H.B. 170, Small Claims Amendments. This amendment will
increase the small claims court’s jurisdiction by $1,000, to $11,000
and aligns with one of the recommendations from the Futures Commission
of the Utah State Bar.
The Legislature also re-established the Judicial Rules Review
Committee, which had been dormant after several years. This
Legislative body will perform a public review of existing and proposed
court rules in a similar manner to the longstanding Administrative
Rules Review Committee.
Immediately after the Session adjourned, Utah Supreme Court Chief
Justice Matthew Durant announced that longtime Courts lobbyist Richard
Schwermer was appointed the new Administrator of the Courts. Richard
has been with the Courts since 1990, and brings an important
perspective to this position.
Access to Justice
The Bar Commissioners voted to endorse Rep. Angela Romero’s H.B. 200,
Sexual Assault Kit Processing Amendments. This bill mandates the DNA
testing of all sexual assault kits. The Legislature partially funded
this bill that will enhance sexual assault victims’ access to justice
through more complete evidence when alleged attacks occur.
The Bar also supported Sen. Hillyard’s S.B. 76, Post-Conviction DNA
Testing Amendments. This bill lowers the threshold to file for
post-conviction DNA testing if the petitioner can show a “reasonable
probability that the petitioner would not have been convicted, or
would have received a lesser sentence”. Currently a petitioner must
establish “factual innocence.”
Sen. Todd Weiler also drafted a technical amendment to the
Bar-supported S.B. 134, Indigent Defense Commission Amendments, based
on feedback from the Government Relations Committee. This change
clarified which parties shall be provided counsel in juvenile
delinquency and child welfare proceedings.
Despite our best efforts, the Legislature does not always follow the
advice of the Bar or its lobbyists. However, we still appreciate the
104 public servants who work diligently to represent Utah residents.
There are likely many issues that impact you and your practice, so we
encourage you to remain engaged in the legislative process and with
your legislator over the coming year.
Douglas S. Foxley, Frank R. Pignanelli and Stephen D. Foxley are
attorneys at Foxley & Pignanelli, the preeminent government and public
affairs law firm in Utah. They focus on federal, state and local
government activities on behalf of numerous corporate and individual
clients, and are proud to be the new government relations
representatives for the Utah State Bar. Please contact them should you
have questions (or jokes) about the legislative process at
801-355-9188 or firstname.lastname@example.org.