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Thursday Thinkpiece: A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living

Periodically on Thursdays, 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.

A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary Lawyer’s Doing Extraordinary Things

Author: Paula Black
ISBN: 978-0-9768285-6-3
Publisher: Black Box Publishing
Page Count: 162 pages (paperback)
Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Price: Paperback – $19.97, Kindle – $9.97, Audible – $19.97

Excerpt: Chapter Eight

Finding Your Niche: It Takes Courage, Vision, and Tenacity

When I talk to lawyers about finding a niche, there’s usually an audible groan.

Most lawyers want to leave their options open. They say, “I can do a lot of things, so why not make a list that says that I can do them all?” Two reasons come to mind.

One is that a long list signals that you’re not an expert at any of them. And two, it’s hard to get referrals, because no one can remember what you do.

It takes courage and vision to draw a line in the sand and declare your specialty—your little corner of the world, so to speak. And it requires tenacity to become known for that niche, so you need to enjoy it.

Not many lawyers have the courage, the vision, or the tenacity to become known for a specialty like Daniel Benavides, Michelle Estlund, and Antonio Gallegos. They will each tell you how they found a niche they enjoy and became an authority in the area.

Daniel Benavides is a Harvard Law grad that had a rude awakening. It helped him find his niche. He stayed the course, and leveraged it for both his firm and himself.

Black: Danny, I understand you had a pretty heady beginning. Tell me about it.

Benavides: Ever since I can remember, my father pushed me to go to Harvard Law School. I never expected that I would actually get into Harvard Law, but when I did, I really had no choice but to go.

I started law school in 2004 at the height of the boom before the Great Recession. Top law firms literally begged to hire us. They offered us $200,000-a-year starting salaries plus signing bonuses. They courted us with ridiculously lavish summer programs—that included nightly spending stipends, all-expenses-paid trips to Vegas, and Hummer-sines to chauffeur us anywhere we wanted.

Black: So with all that courting, where did you decide to go?

Benavides: I ultimately chose to work at Fried Frank in New York. I wanted to do real estate, and they were widely considered the number one real estate firm in the United States. The head of the real estate department, and perhaps the top real estate attorney in New York, became a close personal friend and mentor while I was in law school.

Fried Frank did not disappoint. I was put on some of the most high-profile real estate deals in the United States. As a mere first year, I was working closely with legendary real estate moguls and closing multibillion-dollar transactions. I was on top of the world. I thought I was untouchable.

Black: I understand you had a rude awakening. Do you want to tell me about it?

Benavides: Then my world, along with the global economy, came crashing down. Until 2008, most “experts” believed the real estate market would plateau, or perhaps at worst decline slightly. But by 2008, it became clear that they were terribly wrong. Real estate deals suddenly came to a screeching halt.

For about three months, I sat at my desk with nothing to do but contemplate my reality. I figured it was only a matter of time before I got laid off. There was no way my firm would keep a cocky and inexperienced second-year associate around, when even senior associates and partners had nothing to do.

Black: What did you do during that time?

Benavides: I started looking around for other jobs, but no one was hiring young attorneys without any experience or any portable book of business. After months of a nationwide search, I was fortunate to find an opening at a boutique bankruptcy and commercial litigation firm in Miami, Florida. The job paid a lot less than I was making in New York, but at least the work was interesting and the people were incredible.

Most of my former colleagues at Fried Frank and at other law firms in New York, who began their search later than I did, were not so lucky. Many were laid off, and had to move back in with their parents while they looked for work. Some stopped practicing law altogether. These are Ivy League graduates working at top real estate firms that could not find a job. I was lucky.

Black: What did this experience teach you?

Benavides: My experiences taught me that law is not a profession. Law is a business. Law firms will only keep you around as long as you make them money, period. They don’t care that you have a J.D. or even a Harvard J.D. They don’t care how smart you are, or how smart you think you are. All that matters at the end of the day is the bottom line. If you make them more money than you cost them, you stay. Otherwise, you go—it’s that simple.

I also learned that today’s legal profession is highly competitive. There are staggering numbers of smart and experienced lawyers out there willing to take your place for less money. There are so many lawyers that we have effectively become fungible commodities.

We’re no longer professionals with the luxury of sitting behind a desk waiting for a phone to ring. As technology continues to advance, it’s only a matter of time before many tasks done by attorneys today, especially young attorneys, become completely obsolete.

Black: How did this knowledge change your course?

Benavides: If you want to survive in this business, you have to learn to adapt. For my part, I identified a great niche in hospitality. I realized that most attorneys who call themselves hospitality attorneys are actually practitioners in other areas, such as real estate, land use, or employment law, who sometimes assist hospitality clients, along with clients in other industries—and that’s fine.

But almost none of them dedicate their practice exclusively to the hospitality industry and the unique issues that face that industry, which means that those lawyers are not as experienced and efficient at handling those issues as somebody who does that every day. And more importantly, they don’t market themselves that way.

Black: So how did you leverage that?

Benavides: This unique marketing twist allowed me to be where clients are instead of where attorneys are. For example, I am a member of several hospitality industry organizations that most attorneys have never even heard of, much less thought to network there, but many potential clients are members of those organizations. And being the only lawyer in the room has serious advantages.

Black: So what were the results the strategy produced?

Benavides: Over the last two years, my book of business has quadrupled and my presence in the local hospitality industry has become ubiquitous, thanks in large part to being a member of those organizations.

I’ve also been involved with some of the most important hospitality-related matters of the last decade. Some of my cases are discussed at industry conferences and in industry publications nationwide.

Black: What does your practice look like today?

Benavides: I represent hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs, sort of as an outside general counsel. I delegate a lot of hourly billable work to my partners and sometimes get the firm some good press. I bring in sufficient steady business to justify my existence to my law firm.

This allows me to take the pressure off of my billable hours, and as an added bonus for someone who loves to travel and eat, I get to network where I play. I couldn’t be happier.

Black: Do you have advice for younger attorneys?

Benavides: My advice to younger attorneys who plan to stay in private practice for the next few decades is to dedicate a substantial amount of time and effort to bringing in business. You can do that in many ways. You can become an expert in an industry or in a new hot area of law. Network, write, and market yourself constantly, both inside and outside your firm. Think outside the box, and be where other attorneys have not yet arrived.

Help or mentor other attorneys. You never know—they may one day return the favor.

Always be mindful of your reputation as an ethical, hard-working attorney. Advocate for your clients. Be responsible, and deliver quality work timely and efficiently.

Be willing to negotiate bills. And, most importantly, always make clients feel like they got what they paid for.

Make no mistake, developing and maintaining a book of business is hard work. You will be working most weekends, and you can toss your nine a.m. to six p.m. workday dreams out the window. Your vacations will be interrupted constantly.

It’s certainly easier and more comfortable to sit behind a desk and wait for a partner to come in with the next big billable assignment, but nothing good comes easy.

Black: No, it doesn’t.

The Takeaway

Danny Benavides’s story reminds us how important it is to be honest with yourself and have a sense of what is happening around you. He was able to see the writing on the wall so he could do something about it before the market was flooded with unemployed lawyers.

Being an indispensable adviser that understands many aspects of a client’s business grows the relationship. Danny does that so well. And, most importantly, he likes the hospitality industry.

I love what he said about the fact that building a book of business will be hard—because it will be! But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun if you pick an area you like, and do it with people you like. And that, my friends, will add to the enjoyment of doing it.

I can attest to that from my own experience. I love working with smart, ambitious lawyers. It was one of the best decisions I made to focus on the legal profession. I built a life I love.

So think about it—would you rather sit back and wait for others to feed you or would you like to be growing a practice you love? Find a niche and become an expert.

Michelle Estlund found her niche. She is the most recognized Interpol defense lawyer in the world. Yes, I said world.

Black: Michelle, what was going on with your practice when you realized something needed to change?

Estlund: I had been practicing criminal defense for most of my career when I met you, and I really enjoyed it, but I was also feeling complacent. I knew that I wanted to add something to my practice and grow it into a very complementary part of my life, rather than just have a job or even just a career.

And I remember that in our discussions you had told me several times about developing a niche practice and to kind of be on the lookout for that. I remember you encouraged me to focus on a very specific area. And I had heard this from other sources also, but it seemed like so many things related to criminal law were already saturated with specialty attorneys.

I knew that I loved criminal law. I loved human rights and politics. But I didn’t really honestly think I could mesh all those things together in a law practice that I both cared about and would be lucrative. I thought, that will just never happen.

Black: Explain how your “aha” moment came about.

Estlund: I remember that a client walked into my office with an Interpol case and asked if I could help. This client was wanted out of Venezuela. This was at a time when the Venezuelan government was nationalizing various industries—including the banking industry. And in order to obtain the assets being held by this particular bank, the government had issued arrest warrants for the heads of the bank and the people who were on the board of directors, including that particular client.

I started researching extensively, and what I realized was that there was no real in-depth treatment of Interpol anywhere online. I saw that even the attorneys who were advertising themselves as being experienced were in fact not, once you did a little bit of digging. Nobody was looking at this on a profound level and I realized I could do better than nobody.

Black: I remember what happened next.

Estlund: I told you, “I think I have an idea,” and I told you about the Interpol research I had done and the client that had approached me. And I remember you smiled and told me I had to give you my credit card so we could buy a URL and start a blog. I remember that I did take out my credit card and hand it to you, and I did not want to let go of it because I knew that once I did, that this thing was going to start—and that was really scary for me.

I remember that you told me, “You’ll be the leading expert on Interpol,” and I knew that you were a crazy person. And turns out that kind of ended up happening, didn’t it?

Black: What were the obstacles that almost stopped you?

Estlund: I think my primary limitation at that time was a concern or a fear of criticism. And this might sound odd coming from somebody who is a criminal defense trial attorney, who should be used to criticism and used to hearing no, but this was different for me, because it wasn’t a set of facts in a case that was presented to me, for me to protect and defend another person. This was for me, which is often more difficult. It was my writing, my thoughts, and my ideas. The idea of something that personal being critiqued was very challenging for me.

I wanted to start a blog that was geared toward other attorneys, potential clients, academics, and people like that with the goal of educating people about Interpol, establishing credibility for myself, I wanted to attract clients, of course, and I wanted to advocate for reform where it was needed. Like I said, part of what I wanted to do was advocate for reform of Interpol proceedings, and I was worried that people would think, well, who does she think she is? Why would we listen to this Miami lawyer over in Europe?

This is an international, quasi-legal organization, and I just didn’t feel that I had the gravitas that I needed in order to effect change.

Also, I was worried more personally for my practice—that if I publicized myself as being a specialist or focusing in a niche practice, people would think that that’s all I could do, that I’m a one-trick pony. So those were my concerns.

Black: What was your strategy?

Estlund: In terms of strategy, I can’t say that I had a specific strategy thought out, other than I knew who my target audience was going to be, and I knew that I wanted to serve as a source of information that wasn’t otherwise readily available. And I hoped that consistent blogging about my topic would also force me to stay on my toes, and it has.

Black: So what did you learn, and how did you muster up the courage?

Estlund: I eventually accepted that no one knows everything, even experts. And I remembered my favorite, most well respected professors and mentors throughout my life all had something in common. It was that they didn’t back away from saying “I don’t know,” because they loved what they did, and they knew how to go find out the information that they needed. I knew I could do that too.

I also realized that we can’t wait until we’re not afraid to act. It’s not brave if you’re not scared. Even the most seasoned attorneys are afraid of something. For me, it’s not judges, it’s not juries, it’s not law enforcement officers, and it’s not public speaking. For me, what I was really afraid of was writing about something I cared about and having it not be perfect in public and online.

I worked obsessively for weeks to research, write, and edit my first few posts that would be used to launch my blog. I liked what I wrote, but then I almost didn’t publish, because everything would be out there, and that was really scary for me.

There is a movie called We Bought a Zoo, and there’s a line in that movie that goes like this: the lead character says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and I promise you something great will come of it.”

For me, simple and small as it sounds, my twenty seconds were when I clicked publish and nothing bad happened. Actually, nothing happened at all for two or three months, and then my readership went up. The Department of Justice and Interpol and universities and private individuals were reading my blog, and I knew it because I could see my analytics. People started calling me. People started consulting me. And people started retaining me.

Black: What do you find satisfying about your practice now?

Estlund: I have to say that one of the most satisfying elements of my practice is that I can provide my clients with one of the most basic human needs, and that is to be heard. When they tell me their stories, and I put the story into writing, and I back it up with evidence, we submit that to Interpol and ask for help.

Many of my clients have expressed to me that even after our first meeting they feel a sense of relief and release just from being heard. And by the time we bring their case to the attention of Interpol, they know that someone has not only listened, but is on their side in a pretty epic battle. That is extremely valuable to me on a personal level.

Black: What advice would you give others?

Estlund: I guess I would first say, you need to invest financially and invest your time in your craft, if you want to be outstanding. Nobody wants to spend money on un-fun stuff. When you spend money in targeted ways, to advance your career, it does come back to you.

I travel to seminars, even if I’m not speaking or even if they’re very small, when I know that someone I want to meet will be there, or that I will learn something, even if it’s little. Most people won’t do that.

I spend money on my blog maintenance—although you can do them for free, too—because I get better traction that way and that traction brings me cases.

I take time, aside from actually working on my cases, to write a blog, to maintain contact with people who are in the field, and to stay on top of my game, because I know that if I don’t, somebody else will.

When you’re in doubt about doing something or not, do the affirmative. Say yes. Just do it. If you take a step, or if you say yes to an opportunity, something could happen. It’s not certain, but if you don’t take the step, nothing will happen—and that is certain.

Listen, it can be easy to burn out. It can be really easy to lose steam or lose faith. The law is hard work when it’s done right. But when you seek out motivated people, or you go to relevant seminars, or you reach out to congratulate someone, or just ask a colleague to lunch to learn more about how they work at a personal or professional level, you’re increasing your level of engagement in your profession.

The law is personal, or at least it should be, in my opinion. Staying engaged allows us to stay motivated, relevant, and informed. And that’s how our practices can feel more alive and more vibrant.

Black: What does your Interpol practice look like today?

Estlund: I’ve been really, really lucky after including Interpol in my practice to be able to see that both domestic and international government agencies read my blog, that leading human rights organizations in the United States and Europe consult with me on Interpol issues.

I even was able to attend a European parliament symposium on red-notice abuse. Not a lot of people have had a chance to do that, and that’s what this has done for my practice.

I have clients from all over the globe that I’ve successfully represented before Interpol, and I talk with journalists on Interpol matters pretty frequently, and give interviews to the media and advise about Interpol matters.

I’ve developed new contacts with attorneys who live abroad, and I have friendships that I never would have anticipated. I think that one of the best things that’s come about as a result of my Interpol practice is that I had the privilege of representing a former CIA operative pro bono in a case where the US government, in my opinion, abandoned him.

My blog readership now includes people from all over the world—think tanks, journalists, academics, prospective and past clients, and other attorneys. I’ve seen that my practice has evolved. I now am able to be more selective in the number and the types of cases that I choose to accept. And my fee structure has evolved as well.

Black: Are you glad you gave me your credit card that day years ago?

Estlund: I am. I thought you were so crazy, but yes. Yes.

The Takeaway

Michelle’s story illustrates the power of drawing a line in the sand. She found a niche that she was passionate about on multiple levels, made a commitment, even though it was scary, and she never looked back.

Michelle set out to invest her time and money to differentiate herself in her local market. What she found was a global community she loves working with and clients she connects to on a profound level. She created a life, not just a living.

Antonio Gallegos found his niche in FDA and compliance matters, which led him to become senior corporate counsel in his chosen industry. He was tenacious and focused all along the way.

Black: Talk about your big firm experience and struggles to cultivate your own clients and how you didn’t just passively wait to be fed.

Gallegos: I worked at three large firms from 2000 to 2017. Business development was always stressed, but I didn’t receive much support from the firm for the first five years or so. I was basically told, “Go hunt, but don’t let your billable hours fall.” It was often difficult to balance my billable workload with the networking I needed to do to develop my own practice.

I always made family a top priority.

I have a wife of seventeen years and two teenage boys, so in this three-way battle for my time, workload and family often won, leaving business development to the side. But this allowed me to develop a high level of experience in two practice areas, which are the foundation for me to build my own practice—FDA regulations and products liability litigation.

Black: What was your strategy to find a niche that you would like and a place where you could become known?

Gallegos: Well, about six years into my career, it became apparent that I needed to market myself in a specific niche if I was going to build my own practice. So I asked myself, what is my passion for my personal life that I can incorporate into my legal career?

Well, I was a professional cyclist for three years, still an avid competitive cyclist at the amateur level, and I loved the outdoors. So I chose sports, anti-doping and Olympic-related disputes.

I really loved this work, and the networking was a lot of fun. I built name recognition by writing articles for cycling magazines, and I received lots of calls and inquiries from athletes as potential clients, but only a select few could pay big-firm rates. And even when I discounted my fees, it often wasn’t enough.

I was the only lawyer at my firm doing any work in sports, so support from the top was kind of lukewarm. They really liked my passion, but less-than-stellar financial results and not contributing to another practice group made things a little difficult.

I decided to build a niche more closely aligned to my FDA and products liability experience, representing companies in the food and nutrition industries. This fit well with my interest in sports and healthy living. I also had some work experience in this area prior to law school— working for a media and trade show company that focused on the natural products industry.

I began writing articles on food and nutrition regulations, reconnecting with industry contacts, and marketing myself internally at the law firm. No one else worked on food-specific legal issues, but plenty of others advised food companies in other areas of law, like corporate-led employment work.

I eventually changed law firms to join an established food law practice group. Having that support was great, but I needed to distinguish myself from other lawyers in the group. I decided to leverage my language skills and ethnic background to focus on the Hispanic and Latino food industries. US companies had focused on this population, and foreign companies tried to enter the US market.

Black: Antonio, you have become a master at working trade shows. Talk about your methodology before the conference, at the conference, and, most importantly, follow-up after the conference.

Gallegos: I look for food and nutrition industry events, where potential clients would be—trade shows, business seminars, and things like that.

Bar association events, even those that were focused on my niche, were never a priority. Networking with lawyers is good for getting referrals, but doesn’t allow for direct connection with the potential client. Even when I’d get a referral from time to time, that attorney was often very protective of his or her relationship with the client.

For conferences, I always reviewed the attendee list in advance to identify my top prospects. Then I researched those companies so I could be prepared to talk about their business in a way that highlights my experience, but I always made sure the emphasis was on their business.

When talking with prospects, I also looked for clues into their personal interests and hobbies, and looked for common ground. For me, it was things like sports, the outdoors, travel, and family. I would talk with as many people as possible, but always make sure to make at least five meaningful personal connections.

I was always hunting for speaking engagements. I would send articles I had written on timely legal issues for the food and nutrition industry to the trade show and seminar organizers, and offer to present on those topics. Speaking engagements are a good way for potential clients to see you as an authority. You know the people who attend are interested, so it’s relatively easy to get them to approach you, just by taking questions during the presentation or inviting them to stay afterwards for more discussion.

For follow-up, I would always send emails approximately a week or so after the conference. And not generic canned greetings, but messages that had specific topics from our discussions we had had. And I’d try to include a personal note about common non-business interests. Then I’d find a way to reconnect every month, sending them my newsletter, forwarding an article or legal notice relevant to their business.

Black: Antonio, that is masterful. What were your goals?

Gallegos: The primary goal was building a reputation as a go-to lawyer in my niche. First it was sports, then food and nutrition, and then, more specifically, the Latin and Hispanic food and nutrition industries.

Most people I talked to at trade shows didn’t need to hire me right away, but by reaching out to them at their industry events and staying in regular communication, I hoped to be the one they’d think of first when they needed help on food-related legal issues. As I built this network, I wanted people in this industry to feel that I knew their business and that we had connected on a personal level.

Black: Going in-house wasn’t the ultimate goal, was it?

Gallegos: Networking in the food industry and regular communication with my contacts is how I ended up in-house. I had reached out to the assistant general counsel several years before moving to the company, trying to get their legal work. I added him to my newsletter email list and sent him emails periodically to keep in touch. In one of these follow-ups, he mentioned that he had just lost one of their longtime in-house lawyers.

I wasn’t looking to make any moves at the time. My efforts in the Latino and Hispanic food markets were starting to show some real promise, but I’m always willing to consider my options. And because I had a solid foundation in my law firm, I was able to take the time and make sure this in-house position was truly a great opportunity for me.

I used my breadth of experience to convince him to modify the job duties to a position that gave me better opportunities to advance myself inside the company. So in May of 2017, I was hired as senior corporate counsel for a Denver-based food company, and they’re the world’s largest producer of mozzarella cheese and an industry leader in other dairy products, like whey protein for nutrition products and lactose for infant formulas.

Black: What is it like working in-house? How do you see your previous experience as a foundation for what you’re doing today?

Gallegos: Working inside the company, understanding how business works, and the risk tolerance of senior leadership is critical. The approach I took to business development and serving clients in private practice was a good foundation for this. And that’s basically listening to people talk about their business and their concerns. Working in-house, expectations to know the business objectives are even higher, but luckily, being on the inside makes it a little easier to gain these insights.

Black: What advice would you give others?

Gallegos: First, make sure your legal skills are solid. People know when you’re faking it. But at the same time, understand that the law is not your client’s primary concern, and they’re really not interested in what the law actually says. They want to know what their companies can and cannot do to meet business objectives. They want to know where the gray areas are, and whether their business plans keep them sufficiently inside of the gray, or whether they’re pushing too close to the edge.

Get to know what makes your clients tick and how they fit into their respective markets relative to their competitors. Look for opportunities to meet your clients at their offices to get a glimpse of what their world looks like. You’ll be surprised at how favorably your clients react when you incorporate seemingly small observations about their businesses and their competitor behaviors into your legal advice.

The Takeaway
Antonio Gallegos understood what it takes to make a name for himself in a niche area.

First he found something he was passionate about. That helped him keep his enthusiasm. Then he wrote articles and a newsletter to demonstrate his expertise. He found speaking gigs to get in front of his potential clients and start to form a bond. And most importantly, he did it all with the focus and sensitivity to what his clients want and need.

Antonio is truly a master at working trade shows and conferences. I would suggest that you read his methodology over again and take meticulous notes—he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

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