Getting involved in a new field of law involves more than just getting some new books.
With the continued sharp downturn in bankruptcy filings, most of us have kicked around thoughts of adding a practice area. I did that first during the post-2005 drop in filings when I added Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Fair Credit Reporting Act work, and again in 2012 when I dove head first into the world of student loan law.
Before you add a practice area, you need to step back and evaluate your decision as a business person, not as a lawyer desperate to bring in enough money to cover the rent.
When I made the jump into student loan law, here are some of the considerations I kept in mind before making the change. Answering them for yourself will help you decide whether expanding your offerings makes sense to your office.
Is This A Problem Your Clients Have? I’ve got a friend of mine who decided to expand his bankruptcy practice into criminal law, only to experience complete financial failure because none of his existing or prior clients were of the sort who got into trouble with the law. Expanding into a field that will help your client base makes it easier to help the same people in new ways.
Are There Ways To Learn The New Field Quickly? When I began offering help with credit reporting errors, I did so knowing that there was a NACA conference to help me learn the field. So, too, with student loan law – I decided to begin helping student loan borrowers in part because there was an in-depth student loan law workshop available to me. Without a means of learning the nuts-and-bolts of your field of choice, you may be left without a base of knowledge upon which to draw.
Does It Fill A Gap? When adding a new practice area, you should be looking to fill gaps because they represent missed opportunities for helping your clients. Bankruptcy can provide significant relief to people, but it doesn’t help with all debt problems. If you’ve got a lot of clients who are divorced and have gone through financial hardship, consider learning how to negotiate modifications of domestic support obligations. For practices that see clients with significant nondischargeable tax obligations, learning tax resolution fills a gap.
Can Your Staff Handle The Work? Once you’ve figured out how to do the work and recognized that your clients need the help, look to your staff members to determine whether they can incorporate it into their existing workflow. Bankruptcy involves a step of discrete tasks, so handling new matters of an administrative nature may be a perfect fit. If the workflow doesn’t follow a consistent pattern, you may need to think about changing the makeup of your office.
Can You Price The Solution? This is probably the most frustrating part of the equation for people who expand beyond the bounds of bankruptcy law. Bankruptcy is primarily a flat fee practice area, so going into a new field that involves hourly billing may not work for you without a significant amount of retooling of your office. You’ll need to decide whether the long-term profitability of the new field warrants the investment before making expansion plans.
Entering a new field of law can be exciting and challenging, waking up your brain and pushing your intellect. Adding new practice areas is also good for your firm’s profitability. But every new practice idea shouldn’t make it to the light of day. Using these considerations as a guide can help you expand in a way that makes sense for your practice.