The new issue of LAWPRO Magazine includes an article entitled Diversify without dabbling: before expanding your practice, expand your competence!. It looks at how how lawyers who are considering expanding the scope of their practice can do so safely and avoid a malpractice claim (dabbling outside one’s comfort zone is often a cause of claims). Watch for the full version of this article at www.lawpro.ca/magazine.
Here are five tips from the article on how to expand your practice skills safely.
1. Expand purposefully
If you decide to expand your scope of practice, make sure that the decision to do so is conscious and considered. Resist the temptation to end a business drought by taking any case that walks in the door. A change in practice requires planning. Above all, avoid taking on a case in an unfamiliar practice area on an emergency basis, or at the request of a valued client. Why risk providing novice-level service to a valued client?
2. Choose carefully
Make sure that the practice area in which you’d like to expand is compatible with the work you already do, and that it plays to your strengths. If your background is in commercial litigation you might not adjust easily to, for example, real estate practice. Consider your strongest skills. Are you detail-oriented, logical and a good writer, but have trouble “thinking on your feet?” You might do best to branch into wills and estates, rather than into an area that requires lots of negotiation over the phone.
3. Hit the books
Or perhaps, more productively, the CPD circuit. Don’t assume that you can rely on your distant memories of law school classes. The law changes quickly. You will need to familiarize yourself with not only the substantive law in your target area, but also the procedures, forms, deadlines, software, technology and other tools unique to the new area. Remember – your opponents already know this stuff inside and out.
Do this general learning on your own time, and don’t bill clients for it. If you need reinforcement of this point, read the reasons in LSUC v. Ravinder Pal Sawhney (2012 ONLSHP 13).
4. Find a mentor
There is no better way to familiarize yourself with the demands of a new area of practice than to observe a successful and seasoned expert. Find a mentor in your new area. If you’re lucky, you might identify someone who has more work than he or she can handle, and who can refer some simple files your way. On the other hand, if competition is stiff in your local area, you may find that an expert in another city is more receptive to sharing knowledge with you. If you’ve referred matters to other practitioners in this area of practice before deciding to expand into it, the recipients of those referrals might be willing to mentor you. Do what you can to keep the lines of communication open with your chosen mentor (including the setting of ground rules for your new relationship). Observe him or her in court, ask about where to find the best resources, and get in touch any time you have a question.
5. Invest in the right tools
As mentioned above, there are forms, resources, software and technologies specific to every practice area. You can’t level the playing field between yourself and your opponents unless you invest in these. Also, don’t overlook a personnel investment: a law clerk or paralegal with considerable experience in your new area can give you an instant leg-up on routines and conventions you would otherwise have to figure out for yourself. Consider hiring such a person even on a short-term or part-time basis.
6. Expand by increments
To the extent that you can, build your expertise in your new practice area beginning with the simplest matters first and working up to more challenging files. An effective way to do this is to spread the word that you are looking for referrals of a specific type. Restricting your practice at the beginning and growing it by increments of difficulty will help ensure that you expand your competence in tandem with the scope of the work you do.