How to Build a Niche Practice
This article relates the author’s experiences in carving out a niche in legal practice, a subject that is often spoken about but where advice is scant. It is relevant to young lawyers and more established practitioners who want to specialise in unique fields and who want to stand out from the crowd. Nine areas are identified which the author has used to build a unique practice. There is no playbook for building a niche practice, and this may very well be a pioneering effort in offering detailed advice.
Not much ink has been spilled or wisdom has been shared about building a niche practice, which is extremely relevant for young lawyers and perhaps more established practitioners who wish to stand out from the crowd. Being in my sixth year of legal practice, I have only just started to feel more settled in my area of work. Perhaps this article relating my experiences serves as my contribution to the field of carving out one’s niche – which is often spoken about, but without any indication on how to do so.
1. Find Your Interest
This is the logical starting point, and an important one because it would be dreadful if you were to go to work everyday only to specialise in a niche that you were not interested in. For me, I was interested in art since I was a child, and a dismal university exchange experience to the UK meant that I found myself travelling to London on breaks to study Art law and contemporary art at an auction house. While I knew little about the subject, I was interested enough to learn. This interest then saw me returning to London to gain work experience at one of the few Art law practices in the world, and kickstarted my journey in Art law and Intellectual Property law.
2. Be Good at Two or More Things at an Expert Level
It has been said that one way to be successful is to be a master at two things. I believe this. Being an expert in two distinct areas would mean that you have the ability to generate ideas and have insights between the two that have never been articulated. You can serve as a medium between the two worlds and on which people rely for advice and counsel. For me, it was the Art world and the legal world where I served as a conduit and became a shapeshifter.
It is here where the idea of the niche comes naturally as it is literally the intersection between two distinct worlds – and this is where you must operate. These two worlds can be anything that you are interested in and may be esoteric and peculiar – for example, my interests in ornithology (the study of birds) and botany have actually brought me work, opportunities and at the very least, something to talk about with other lawyers and clients.
3. Have Your Ear on the Ground and Constantly Evolve
Most successful people keep their ear on the ground. In the Art world, we do this by taking the “time” to see others’ shows, performances and exhibitions. Only then will you get a feel of the zeitgeist, and of the pulse of your field. It also ensures that you can see and be seen by clients and contemporaries.
You will also have to constantly evolve. When I studied Art law in London, and later, Intellectual Property and luxury industries in Paris for my masters degree, the art, fashion, media and cultural worlds were concerned with issues very different from today. These industries and practice areas have since sprawled into the world of digital and tech, such as with the issuance and sale of Non-fungible tokens (NFT) artworks, digital clothing, cryptocurrencies, the metaverse and issues relating to Artificial Intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). This is unsurprising as legal services follow the demands of the market – to which one must evolve and adapt. While the work in the area is still largely non-contentious, the disputes will soon follow.
4. There Will be Challenges, Detractors and Naysayers
Some say that Art law is perhaps the fastest growing practice area today. Things could not have been more different some time ago. Art law, and to an extent Intellectual Property law, is still only offered as a subject on an elective level, or not offered at all due to the perceived lack of demand and the lack of relevance and general applicability. But again, this is the nature of any true niche. A niche is a unique area and by definition, cannot be a commonplace or general one.
I faced many challenges. Law firms are not interested in the area and as a trainee lawyer, I have been in interviews where I was informed that there was “no market” for what I was interested in. It was here where I could either give up, or find a way to make my own market. I then decided to begin practice as a shipping litigator. I believed an Art lawyer would need to go to court (and many other international Art lawyers did not) and I had to learn the relevant skills. Luckily for me, my then-firm allowed me to take on art matters on the side and from there, I started to build my own practice.
5. Help Others (If You Can)
Help others, but only if you can. Artists are a very different type of client than others, I have worked on cases on a pro bono or a “low bono” basis. This is just the nature of the industry. However, the cases can be interesting ones, and I have worked on the first NFT issuance by an arts group in Singapore, and even a case about chickens being raised in public housing (a different type of niche). While I do not expect anything in return, I do get the satisfaction when a wrong gets put right, or when a new client comes to me through a referral from people whom I had helped or through word of mouth. This all goes towards establishing yourself in your niche. I am also grateful for my peers and senior members of the bar who have helped me, and see this as a way of paying it forward.
6. Teach to Sharpen Your Knowledge and Skills
Another way to build your niche is to teach in your particular field. While teaching generally does not pay as well as legal practice, the students you teach will soon enter the industry. You would be their go-to person having established trust and respect with them – especially so in a niche area where lecturers or specialists who know both the law and the particular industry are few and far between. In addition, teaching not only forces you to build and to update your industry knowledge, but also trains you in breaking down complicated legal concepts to students – something which clients really appreciate when used in legal practice. When clients tell me that they understand my periodic advice and updates, I attribute this to my experience in teaching. It is when clients understand their legal matters at each step of the way that they naturally feel confident and in-control – which is often not the case when they may be embroiled in litigation. The soft skills sharpened during teaching thus leads to a more positive client experience.
7. A Niche Practice is Only for the Brave
I have had lawyers approach me who want to work in a niche area, but alas, were too afraid to take the leap. In all honesty, the process of building a niche practice often starts with forgoing a regular income and bonuses, but still having bills to pay. I was lucky to have started early, and never really had the luxury or comfort of working a stable job to give up. While I also needed the flexibility to complete my doctorate (yes, this is the extent of my interest), there is scope for lawyers in full time roles to still build a niche practice on the side, or more preliminarily, to develop and grow your interest which may one day stand by itself. Such a day may come when your main practice area shifts, the industry you are in is a sunset one or even due to changing priorities or the vicissitudes of life.
You will also take on the role of risk-taker, change-maker or disruptor. It also comes with the territory where you will be publicly visible. In the early days, I was called a “disrupter” with some publications and magazines featuring and honouring me for my work at a time when I did not know what being a “disruptor” actually meant. While it is wonderful and admirable to push and break down boundaries in the various fields, the other side of the same coin is one where people get disgruntled for reasons only known to them and who may not be your biggest fans. There will be disagreements in private and in public, and one must be brave enough to decide which battles are worth fighting, and which ones are not.
8. Do Not Remain Isolated, Have a Support System to Rely on
Working in a niche area can be isolating and you should rely on a support system which may include friends from university, colleagues or ex-colleagues. Other lawyers from other practice areas in your firm may be good people to learn from, bounce ideas off, and who may give you work or collaborate with you. Friends and contacts from your specialisation or industry could also provide you market intelligence especially when sizing up your competition.
9. Your Clients Will Follow You
With all that said, the clients that you gain on this journey will follow you. No other lawyer within your firm or elsewhere would be able to service them the way that you care for and look after them (if not, they would have already jumped ship). There is no need to be over protective of these relationships considering that your clients have seen you grow into your niche and that it is your mastery and knowledge of the distinct areas that makes you valuable to them. Herein lies your power at the negotiating table – if you leave for someplace new, they will follow.
These pointers have served me well, and I continue to refine them as I go along. There was no playbook given to me on how to build a niche practice, and perhaps this is the first chapter of mine that I am now sharing.