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Thursday Thinkpiece: Harrington on Niche Practices and Becoming an Expert

Each Thursday we present a significant excerpt, usually from a recently published book or journal article. In every case the proper permissions have been obtained. If you are a publisher who would like to participate in this feature, please let us know via the site’s contact form.

One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice
© 2016 Attorney at Work. Reprinted with permission.

Jay Harrington is an attorney and co-founder of Harrington, where he leads the agency’s Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams to help lawyers and law firms increase market awareness and improve business development efforts. 

Excerpt: Chapter 5 – Carving a Path: How to Establish and Sustain Expert Status

LeBron James is an expert. Michael Jordan was, too, during his playing days. They are two of the most prolific scorers in NBA history. They’re also considered two of the best defensive players to ever play the game. They’ve won championships, MVP trophies and huge endorsement deals, earning tens of millions in the process. So should you try to become the Jordan or James of the legal game? Maybe, but it’s probably going to require setting all else — family, friends, outside interests — aside to pursue the pinnacle. A better role model might be Jodie Meeks.

Never heard of the guy? Well, in 2014, Meeks signed a three-year, $19 million contract with the Detroit Pistons. Unlike Jordan or James, he’s not a great all-around player, and was primarily a role player who came off the bench for his previous team, the Los Angeles Lakers. But Meeks excels at a skill that NBA teams crave — he’s one of the league’s best three-point shooters. And he’s ridden his ability to perform a narrow, but critical, task to a huge contract and what will likely be a long, lucrative career. The same is true of most left-handed relief pitchers in baseball, whose job descriptions are typically limited to disposing of left-handed hitters in the middle and late innings of games.

How about an example a little closer to home? The most successful expert witnesses are typically those who have embraced the benefits of niche specialization. To be at the top of his or her game, an antitrust expert, for example, must be an expert in an industry such as energy, and oftentimes possess a subspecialty within the industry. Complex litigation hinges on narrow and often related issues that require different experts to prove or defend against various claims. When much is at stake, a team of experts consisting of individuals with narrow, niche expertise, rather than a single individual with broad expertise, is engaged.

The point is that, in the legal marketplace, to reap the benefits of being an expert you don’t need to be the world’s foremost litigator or M&A strategist. Those are big ponds with lots of fish swimming in them. Remember, “expert” is a relative term. A better approach is to think narrower. The law is vast and complex, so drill deep, not wide.

For most, potential areas of expertise to pursue can be identified at the intersection of interests, experience and market opportunities. So ask yourself three questions:

  1. What type of work do I like to do?
  2. What type of work am I good at?
  3. What opportunities exist in the marketplace? In other words, are people buying what I’d like to sell?

If you can determine what you like to do, what you’re good at and where market opportunities exist, and then find some commonality among them, you will be in good shape when it comes to carving out a niche.

Take, for example, a former colleague of mine. Fairly early in his career he established himself as a skilled corporate bankruptcy lawyer (what he’s good at — but a broad, “big pond” area of the law). While his knowledge and experience was in U.S. bankruptcy law, he always had an interest in aspects of international law (what interests him). A career in U.S. bankruptcy law does not necessarily lend itself to opportunities and exposure to international law issues, but that didn’t stop him. He identified opportunities to develop expertise in the narrow, but important, area of how the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and U.K. pension law intersect and impact each other. He honed his expertise in this area before the 2008 financial crisis and restructuring wave, and when the wave hit (the market opportunity) he was well positioned for important engagements in U.S. bankruptcy cases that involved these international issues.

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Pursuing what interests you is probably the most important predictor of, if not success, satisfaction. And success typically follows satisfaction.

Psychologist and Yale School of Management professor Amy Wrzesniewski focuses her work on how people make meaning of their work, and the experiences of those who perceive their work as a job, career or calling. Her findings reveal that those who view their work as a “job” derive little meaning and see it only as a means (income) to an end (buying life’s necessities). If given the opportunity, they would start doing other work immediately if it led to greater income. Those who view their work as a “career” are more satisfied and engaged, but still desire more — more compensation, benefits and responsibility. Those who view their work as a “calling” are most satisfied. To them, work is not a means to an end, but a source of joy, meaning and fulfillment.

Wrzesniewski’s work holds important lessons for aspiring lawyer experts. Few, if any, lawyers who view their work as a job will achieve expert status. Someone who goes through the motions, punches the clock and has his or her eye on an exit strategy is extremely unlikely to put in the essential hard work. A lawyer engaged in a career can become an expert through sheer will and ambition. But if the work does not inspire him or her, it will be difficult to sustain expert status during the course of a long career with dogged persistence alone.

But a lawyer who is pursuing his calling, whose work is stimulating and satisfying, will become an expert almost despite himself. He thinks about his work off the clock, not because he has to, but because he wants to. He believes that his work adds value to the lives of others. This enables him to learn and think creatively about his subject matter in ways that others don’t, or even can’t.

Wrzesniewski suggests that those who view their work as a job, or even a career, engage in an exercise called “job crafting.” She and her colleagues describe job crafting as “redefining your job to incorporate your motives, strengths and passions. The exercise prompts you to visualize the job, map its elements, and reorganize them to better suit you.” In other words, job crafting involves taking intentional action to take control of your career (and
hopefully transform it into a calling).

A good place to start? Determine: (1) if you like doing something and (2) if you’re good at it. If both are true, and there’s a market that exists for the type of service you intend to provide, you may have found your niche.

Building Blocks of the Expert Lawyer

Being an expert is rewarding. Experts make more money. The work experts do is often more interesting, too. Work that a generalist may find demanding in a particular area of the law, requiring a review of case law, statutes and court rules, is routine for an expert. That which requires thought and research invites equivocation and uncertainty, while that which is routine is trained reflex, done with confidence and clarity. As a result, an expert’s mind is unshackled to think more deeply, examine problems differently and find solutions that generalists often cannot. This makes for a more interesting, enjoyable career.

Of course, these rewards are not free. Once an expert, not always an expert. Sustaining a market-leading position requires hard work, continuing education, forward thinking and creativity. Here are a few tips:

  • Learn and do. True expertise comes from acquiring both knowledge and experience. You need to find time for both book learning and real-world experience. Because experts take a narrow approach to their practice, they are able to immerse themselves in industries in which they focus — reading, writing and attending events focused on the same issues that their clients care about. This allows them not only to have legal subject matter expertise, but also, more importantly, expertise about the business issues impacting their clients.
  • Be a thought leader. Content marketing — real thought leadership expressed in the marketplace of ideas — is an essential element of establishing and sustaining expertise. Not only will you promote your credentials, but the act of writing will force you to become more informed about your area of expertise.
  • Be disciplined. The road to expertise (one that never really ends) is filled with distractions. Start small, learn your craft, and don’t get derailed by new “opportunities” that can slow your progression. As a result, you’ll end up saying “no” quite often — perhaps more than you say “yes” — but that’s not a sign of failure. It’s a sign of attaining confident expert status.
  • Get a mentor. Just as Michael Jordan had a coach, experts rely on others that help them excel. Professional colleagues, mentors, business coaches — whoever you trust and respect — can often provide helpful feedback, perspective, reassurance and advice. Perhaps most importantly, a trusted sounding board can help hold you accountable if you get off track. An outside perspective is often needed, even for the most committed and accomplished experts in any field.
  • Be confident and take risks. No one else will think you are an expert if you don’t think of yourself as one. Fear of failure is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face. Being an expert involves, first and foremost, taking ownership and responsibility. Experts don’t outsource and equivocate, they are confident and decisive. You have to be willing to take chances to learn and grow.

The world does not need more general practitioners. What is needed, and what good clients are willing to pay a premium for, is deep knowledge and expertise in narrow practices and industries. While being a generalist may make you relevant to all, being an expert makes you indispensable to some. Be indispensable.

SOME QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

  1. What type of work do you enjoy doing?
  2. Do you have experience doing the work you enjoy for clients in a growing industry?
  3. Are you genuinely interested in learning more about the legal and business issues concerning a particular industry?
  4. Are there mentors within your firm who you can model yourself after?
  5. Can you leverage your past experience to bring new perspectives to a new industry?
  6. Can you quickly and easily answer questions, and provide advice, on basic issues in your area of purported expertise?
  7. What are three trends that are transforming the industry you serve? Are there any legal solutions that can help clients overcome the challenges, or seize the opportunities, that these trends present?
  8. What legal issues and questions are you passionate and interested in?
  9. What insights could clients and prospective clients benefit from?
  10. How can you learn and/or validate what those insights are?

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