American Bar Association - Top of Mind: How to Become the “Go-To” Lawyer in Your Field
When we need to buy goods or services, we generally reach for our usual standbys. If we have been using a certain coffee brand for years or always order the same lunch salad from the corner deli, it is likely that we will continue to do so. Unless something stimulates us to deviate from our customary choice—the quality declines, the local store stops carrying our choice coffee brand, or the deli loses its lease—we may not have a compelling reason to make a change. Similarly, we tend to retain the professionals we are using as long as they are satisfactory. Even when people go away to school or move to a new city, they may travel back to get a haircut from their usual stylist or a checkup from their longtime doctor. Changing brands or service providers usually requires a trigger to overcome the comfort of sticking with the familiar. So newcomers or disrupters have to overcome a high barrier to draw buyers away from the usual sources to take a risk on something new.
Legal clients also tend to use the lawyer or firm they know even when there may be an alternative that is better suited to meet their needs. This phenomenon has been referred to as “incumbency bias,” a term I first heard used by Joel Stern, chief executive officer of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms. Stern uses the term to refer to an obstacle that women- and minority-owned firms face in convincing major institutional clients to hire diverse firms rather than relying solely on big firms with which they have long-standing relationships. The ties between institutional clients and established firms can go back decades as client relationships are passed on to successive generations of lawyers within the firm.
Given that premise, how do lawyers break the cycle to persuade clients to give them a chance? One of the most effective ways to win clients and retain them is to build a reputation as the “go-to” lawyer for your type of practice in your market. By doing so, you will be top of mind when clients need representation in your field in your geographic area. Other lawyers and clients will refer clients to you because you have earned credibility for your expertise and prowess in handling matters of a specific type.
So how do you go about achieving “go-to” status for what you do in the market in which you practice? An effective method is to study the lawyers who have achieved name recognition. When you do this, patterns emerge that you can follow. There is no secret sauce; there are proven strategies to attaining this status that anyone can follow. However, it takes focus, determination, and perseverance.
1. Define Your Area of Expertise and Market
There was a time when being a general practitioner in a specific location could generate significant legal work. But now most clients want to hire someone who concentrates his or her practice in the area of law needed. Whether they are looking for a lawyer to advise them on their estate plan, to defend them against a charge of driving under the influence, or to draft a complex licensing agreement, the client wants to know that you do this work every day and are up to speed in the area. In particular, large commercial clients want to ensure you are well versed in their industry and have handled comparable matters. You do not want to dilute your credibility as a go-to lawyer for a particular type of practice by spreading yourself too thin.
Depending on your area of practice, ideally you should identify no more than three subject areas in which you concentrate. Your geographic market should be the jurisdictions in which you are licensed and actively represent clients. The scope of the subject matter and the breadth of the geographic area are intertwined. For example, if you practice international arbitration, your potential market may be global, or it may focus on a particular continent or select countries. On the other end of the continuum, if you practice municipal zoning, your market may be your city, town, or county. Although tailored in scope, that may be more than enough to generate sufficient work if you are perceived to be one of a select group of practitioners who have mastered this practice in that community.
For example, in 2000, I left government after serving as the litigation chair for the City of Philadelphia Law Department to join a firm where I needed to build my book of business. Trying to establish a client base and distinguish myself from the many other capable litigators was an uphill challenge. However, I found that when I refined how I described my practice in Philadelphia from “commercial litigation” to a specific industry, “hospitality,” and followed the steps outlined below, hospitality industry clients started to find me to handle their matters. My practice started to grow when potential clients thought of me as a go-to person in the hospitality industry.
2. Master Your Area of Law and Adapt to the Market Accordingly
There is no way around the fact that to be viewed as the go-to person in your area of practice, you need to master the area and continue to enhance your expertise and perfect your skills. Go-to lawyers draft new legislation, handle groundbreaking cases, and shape the law in their area. They keep up with the latest cases and trends and consider how to help their clients achieve their goals, reduce their risk, or avoid sanctions. It is not possible to stay ahead of the competition if you focus on too many areas of practice or are a chameleon, changing how you are presenting your expertise to satisfy whatever may come through the door.
However, once you get comfortable following these steps, you can pivot to new practices if the demand for your type of work declines and new opportunity arises. For example, I know several real estate lawyers who transitioned during the financial crisis in the 1990s and again in 2008. They moved to bankruptcy, arbitration, environmental law, and employment law, to name a few, and built thriving practices as go-to lawyers in different practices that were more in demand. Becoming an expert in an area allows you greater flexibility to adapt to meet market need.
3. Become a Thought Leader
The top lawyers in their field are often prolific writers and speakers on topics in their field. Some are more comfortable doing one than the other, but doing both is ideal if you enjoy doing so. Otherwise, if it’s drudgery, your material probably won’t be enjoyable to read or listen to. Top go-to lawyers usually do both. They publish articles in legal and industry newsletters, write regular columns, and publish blogs dedicated to their field. Bar associations, law firms, professional groups, and alumni magazines are all looking for content and presentations. It is important to keep your material fresh and original, and to make it useful and accessible. If you write or speak about something you care about, your passion will shine through while you share valuable content.
Take the example of accomplished litigator and legal ethics scholar Lawrence J. Fox, who was recently honored as the recipient of the ABA Medal for his contributions to professional jurisprudence. How did he achieve this pinnacle of our profession? Fox, a longtime friend and mentor, regularly wrote articles on legal ethics issues presenting them with humor. He offered valuable insights in his writing, including a book published by the ABA, “Fair Fight: Legal Ethics for Litigators,” which he coauthored with Susan R. Martyn. He echoed his written thought leadership in his engaging presentations. Focusing on what he cared about, Fox became known as one of the premier legal experts in the country recruited to teach professional ethics at several top law schools. Over the years, as a go-to ethics guru, he developed a robust practice as an advisor and expert on professional ethics.
4. Affiliate with Others Interested in Your Field
As they say, birds of a feather flock together. For many of us, the last thing we want to do when we are not working is socialize with other lawyers or clients. We want a break from being “on” to be able to relax. Some of us are resistant to attending bar association or professional industry events where large groups of lawyers congregate over cocktails and conversation. However, participating in affinity groups is particularly valuable to establishing yourself as a go-to lawyer in your area. If you are active in a committee that focuses on tax law, then other tax lawyers are likely to think of you when they have a conflict referral to share. Similarly, if a real estate or corporate lawyer is looking for a tax lawyer, that lawyer is likely to seek you out if you are chairing the tax committee of the bar association. People will likely contact you to identify lawyers who handle particular types of tax matters, and sometimes the project will be in your wheelhouse and you will get first crack at being hired.
Serving in leadership positions in industry groups, such as automakers, food service, energy, or health care, or in affinity groups, such as women entrepreneurs, can also raise your profile among potential clients and place you top of mind. For example, my involvement in both bar association committees and entrepreneurial groups focusing on women has led to many opportunities. Some of those arise because potential clients contact me directly to hire my firm, but often they are calling to ask if I can recommend a woman lawyer to meet a specific need even if it is something we cannot handle. By making recommendations and referrals based on being known as a woman lawyer who supports other women, I have received many generous referrals in return.
5. Be Generous to the Media with Your Time
Print and broadcast journalists need new topics to cover and interesting stories to share. Many of them involve legal issues with which the reporter may be unfamiliar. Most successful go-to lawyers are happy to be available on short notice to respond quickly and answer questions. They can explain concepts in plain language that others can understand. A genuinely helpful lawyer will do so without expecting to always be quoted. If you follow this approach, you will inevitably receive attribution, which is worth more than paid advertising. Being recognized as an expert by the press enhances a lawyer’s credibility with clients and referral sources. Thus, developing good relationships with reporters who cover topics related to your practice can be part of developing your brand-name recognition.
Nothing happens overnight. Developing a reputation as a capable go-to lawyer takes time, but the effort can yield meaningful results for your practice. If your professional goals are to build a client base that values you and do work that you are passionate about, these strategies will help launch you as a go-to, top-of-mind lawyer in your field. Good luck!
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