A key decision when launching a new firm is deciding "what you are." Unless you practice law in a small town, the days of the general practice lawyer are gone. Your chances for success are much greater if you limit yourself to a particular area of law where you can become an expert. This gives focus to all of your marketing efforts. Trade "I'm a lawyer" for "I help families resolve disputes" or "I'm a commercial real estate attorney."
So how do you choose your niche?
1. Start with who you are
The obvious choice is the subject that most interests you. But consider also your personality, likes, and dislikes. Do you prefer doing research to handling emotional confrontations? Don't go into family law. Speak another language? Consider immigration law. Love sailing? How about Admiralty? Hate public speaking? Don't become a litigator.
The benefit of running your own firm is that you can tailor your practice to your personal strengths and make your professional life into exactly what you want it to be, something that can be very difficult at a larger firm.
2. Consider geography and economics.
Some niches work better in certain locations. Use your preferred location as a guide to suggest areas where you can succeed: Oil and gas law in Texas; copyright in Los Angeles; corporate law in Nevada or Delaware; elder law in Florida.
Also consider economic realities. Plan the breadth of your practice--and its natural extensions--based on current and possible future trends. Bankruptcy is strong in recessions; real estate runs in cycles; legislative changes have a huge impact on securities law, immigration, and other practice areas.
For example, if your chosen practice area is entertainment law, you could start by marketing yourself to the music industry, then work to add independent film or publishing. If you start with personal injury, consider expanding your training to include medical malpractice. If you pitch yourself as a tax lawyer, consider learning about estate planning, or securities law, or corporate governance.
Having a niche doesn't mean you can only do one thing. It means you don't try to do everything. And it means you have a focused message for those who need the specific services that you can provide.
3. Consider money
If you went into law just to get rich, you may succeed, but you will also be miserable. Still, money is a valid consideration when viewed in light of your other priorities. For example, if you want to work from home or you look forward to assisting immigrants, you can succeed, but you should temper your financial expectations. When preparing budgets to launch your new firm, take into account the different hourly rates, typical project size, and market expectations for your selected area of law.
4. Talk to others
You may not have the experience to make a confident decision about your area of practice. Talk to other who are solo practitioners or work in small firms that focus on areas you are considering. Ask about their daily schedules, what they like and dislike, how they market themselves, what the business cycles are like, and what cautions they can offer about their area of practice.
Don't neglect online contacts. They may be less likely to see you as competition, although they won't have as much information to offer about your local market.
5. Be Willing to Change
Your first choice isn't set in stone. If you find you're not enjoying the work, the people, or the money, position yourself for a change. Plan your move, train yourself, revamp your marketing messages. Then do it!
Nicholas Wells is a solo trademark attorney at Wells IP Law, which he founded in 2009 after several years at a large Utah law firm and General Electric's trademark group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.