How do you translate a practice area into a practice?  Or, more bluntly, how do you keep the lights on while attracting the kind of cases you want to handle?  The short answer:  focus and persistence.

Year 1:  Food Law, With Focus

“What kind of law do you practice?”  People ask this question for two reasons – they want to start a conversation, or refer business.  “Oh, I pretty much do anything” doesn’t give them much to work with.  Communicate what you do now, what else you’d like to do, and why:  “I do criminal defense because . . ., but I’m also interested in handling cases on behalf of clients detained on immigration charges because . . . .”  A focused response directs the conversation toward your comfort zone and connects you with your practice area.

In your first year, well-meaning friends and family will send you cases outside your practice area.  Consider them seriously.  You may find an interesting case or sympathetic client that prompts you to expand your practice.  Many of us spend at least part of our first solo year practicing “food law,” as in, whatever you can competently handle that will put food on the table.  Each new call will require you to learn how to handle the matter competently, or to find another lawyer who can – either way, you make an essential investment in your skills or your referral network.   If you decide not to take a case outside your area, and can’t find another lawyer to send it to, put the caller in touch with a bar association referral service.  Meanwhile, circle back to thank whoever sent you the case, and be sure they know your areas of focus.

Year 2:  Nurture and Prune

News flash:  it’s not unusual for your practice area to evolve over time.  The first year offers a steep learning curve about the work you like, the work you don’t, and the difference between the two.  The second year is for taking stock: deciding which areas to keep, which to add, and which to cut.   Which practice areas do you enjoy most?  Have you discovered related areas that might be worth pursuing?  Where are referrals coming from?  What does cash flow look like in each part of the practice – when do you get paid and how much?  Which practice areas will require investment of additional capital?   With this information, you can prune out areas that are not working, nurture areas that are profitable and enjoyable, and let your referral sources know about your new areas of focus.

Year 3:  Stay in the Game

Building a practice in a particular area demands persistence.  Stick around, repeat your message, and keep asking for the business you want most.  Visibly invest in your practice area by attending focused CLEs, writing articles, and volunteering (for example, with bar committees addressing your field, with pro bono organizations serving your clientele, or with organizations that will increase your referrals in your desired area).   As you put down deep roots in your preferred practice areas, remember to keep building your network of people to whom you can refer matters.

Experienced solos:  how has your practice evolved?