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How—and Why—to Start a “Niche” Practice

Back in 1949, Sorrell Trope, then a lean and hungry young attorney in southern California, noticed that divorce was both increasing and becoming socially acceptable. He decided to open what became the first law practice devoted exclusively to divorce and family law issues. When I interviewed him a few years ago for a magazine profile, Trope, then 80, could still be found behind his desk every morning at 8 am. Business was booming, and he was still planning for the future.

“Whenever I pass a wedding,” he told me, “I think ‘That’s inventory.’” Trope found a niche, and by getting in early, built a thriving practice. (He appears to still be there).

He was followed shortly by the most famous niche lawyer, albeit fictional, in American history, Perry Mason, who had a long and successful career only defending murder suspects who were innocent.

Nowadays, of course, there are many firms that do divorce/family law, but at a time when many graduating law students have hard times finding work, it’s good to remember that all “specialty” firms can trace their origins back to someone who saw a new market that needed filling.

Due to technological and societal changes, that’s probably truer now than ever. Streaming content over the Internet, to cite just one example, has upended the whole traditional music and TV watching delivery systems, raising questions about what constitutes fair use, royalties, rights, copyrights and what’s going to happen to all those big empty storefronts now that the remaining Blockbuster’s are closing up shop? There are mounds of lawyers mining this rapidly-changing landscape, merely by keeping abreast of, and maybe a little ahead of, new developments and rulings.

As the strippers sang to the future Gypsy Rose Lee in “Gypsy,” “You gotta have a gimmick.”

Now I’m not suggesting that attorneys parade around in tassels and do a bump-and-grind (although I would be supportive if that were their choice), but using a little imagination to put a spin on things isn’t a bad idea.

For example, I haven’t checked whether there are attorneys focusing entirely on issues related to gay marriage, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t. Gay married couples would seem to have their own particular subset of priorities, from seeking out someone sympathetic to issues like adoption, discrimination in housing or employment, moving to states that don’t recognize their marriage as legitimate, etc.

And even before the Affordable Care Act’s website crash-landed, there were already a plethora of “faux” insurance companies perpetrating fraud on the naïve and desperate. I would bet that a young, ambitious young buck could make a name for him or herself handling cases solely related to Obamacare.

Some of the law firms that took on the tobacco industry in the 90s have long been searching for their next goldm – I mean, big bad target – to go after and have apparently struck pay dirt by going after food manufacturers who label their products “natural,” “low calorie” “a good source of antioxidants” and similarly vague claims. There is a lot of controversy over whether these are legitimate claims or just predatory lawyers looking to nitpick their way to their next windfall, but be that as it may, they’re raking in big bucks off their new niche.

“Bullying” is big now. There’s even “in person” bullying and “online bullying.” There’s bullying in the schoolyard, there’s bullying on the ball field, and there’s bullying on the computer. If someone were to open a practice consisting of only these types of cases, I’d say “bully” for them.

And every time you came upon someone being mercilessly verbally pummeled in public, you could say “That’s inventory.”

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