The dangers of having a niche

by Jamie Pennington on February 19, 2016

the_dangers_of_niche.jpgLawyers are encouraged to have a niche, but yet niches come with dangers as well upsides.

Lawyers love niches. So do marketing departments. It’s a lawyer’s comfortable Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – even though it’s rarely unique and even more rarely used as a selling proposition. Niches enable a lawyer to do what they’re really good at – knowing more and more about less and less, until they get to a position where they know almost everything about the legal implications of a particular set of circumstances. 

This is a wonderfully secure position. Most lawyers suffer from the imposter syndrome, where they wonder how long it will be until the client realises that much of the lawyer’s knowledge is only a little more advanced than the client’s. Since knowledge is what most/many lawyers believes that they “sell” (a thought which is unpacked later in this blog), they believe they are only pretending to have great expertise – hence the imposter syndrome.  With a niche, however, they can relax when they face a client who needs their niche expertise.

However, there are dangers that come with working in a niche:

  1. In knowing more and more about less and less, the lawyer can end up knowing everything about nothing. The niche is so niche that work can be both very profitable but elusive; rather like being a gargoyle maker in the Middle Ages - wonderful if somebody is building a cathedral, but very limited otherwise. (Anybody want an ugly garden ornament?). 
    Thus a deep niche dweller needs colleagues who are in the market sifting for opportunities.

  2. Clients rarely lead with niche thinking (“I really need a lawyer who has understanding of the tax treaty implications of an Israeli start up selling hosted software into the Chinese market”). Clients have business needs, so if a lawyer doesn’t have a keen band of cross-selling colleagues, they need to back out of their niche far enough to provide a “hopper” into which clients can fall.  The wider the general business knowledge the greater the opportunity to sift out niche work, or recommend others.

  3. It’s harder to promote. Getting to fixed share or salaried partner as niche-dweller is very achievable; however unless the niche is sufficiently generic to enable routine delegation of work to more general junior colleagues, or the niche is very remunerative, the lawyer is in a cul-de-sac.  The partnership model is based on leverage, so even with a £1M client base a partner doing almost all the work themselves would only be able justify £250-£300K equity share. Great in small firm, but the need to find clients normally needs a large-firm infrastructure, where a solo book of £1M is a welcome bolt-on but possibly not even portable to another firm.

There’s a flipside too - the converse of a niche is the generalist, where the lawyer knows more and more about less and less, until (as the adage goes) they know nothing about everything.  Many senior partners are on this route, relying on expert colleagues to pick up the detailed work whilst they build relationships. This too has weaknesses, but the biggest challenge is the lawyer’s desire to sell knowledge, not expertise. Because time is limited, a trade has to happen - developing general knowledge and client expertise means letting go of the security blanket of niche knowledge. It relies on a partner knowing that their firm has got lots of good lawyers and many differentiated niches, but also knowing that a client is paying for good advice, the kind which requires the partner to understand more about the client and less about the law.

So the niche is great for lawyer security and great for specific client issues.  It is, however, poor for partner remuneration&promotability and poor for client engagement.  The choice is yours, but think about where you’re currently heading.

Topics: client relationships, clients, partners

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