We tend to agonize over law graduates trying to decide on what to do in terms of a practice area. Just as often, however, the situation concerns itself with an established lawyer trying to decide whether to stay in a practice area or to take the bold step of starting over somewhere else, or in doing something else.
My interests changed. My priorities change. I noticed what I believed to be interesting opportunities. I got bored with what I was doing. My curiosity was peaked.
I have changed both the locations of my practice(s), and the practice areas.
After law school, I moved back to my hometown of Texarkana, Texas - Arkansas. At first I ran a medical practice, which involved building new satellite offices and attempting to obtain approval to build and operate an ambulatory surgical center. I actually took a lot away from that job in the way that maybe law offices needed to operate as opposed to the way they were typically run at the time.
At the time, however, the "greenmail" era was happening on Wall Street, and I asked myself why that would not work with small closely held companies. In this regard, I had knowledge of how larger bankruptcies operated from my work while in law school. And, what I finally figured out was that there were a number of old line companies in which the families were at odds after a generation or two, and one side of the family was taking advantage of the other, while not buying the disadvantaged family out. I could acquire the shares of the minority owners in a voting trust. Then I could start a number of legal proceedings to close down the business in an effort to force the controlling family members to buy out the voting trust at a premium. This was possible at the time because in Texas, as in most states, corporations were initially formed for a specific purpose, as opposed to a general purpose as they are now. Most successful family businesses of some age morph from their original business purposes as opportunities arise. The voting trust would sue to require the business get out of its profitable area and back to the purpose of its charter. You might ask why the corporation would not simply amend its charter? The reason is that such things at the time could not take place without a super majority of the outstanding shares voting in favor of the change, and the voting trust would controlled enough shares to prevent that from happening.
What you can say is that most of these targeted companies represented the well regarded members of the small Texas towns. Therefore, the whose who of small town Texas did not have the same regard for my genius. The bottom line is that I made a good deal of money on 4 deals, and lost much of it in litigation and the bad prospect of actually taking over one of those companies. The large local bank filed a RICO lawsuit against me, which lasted a couple of years for my practices. The bank lost. I had run for public office from my hometown at 21 and came within a percent or so of unseating the incumbent. I had thought of running for public office again, but this activity and the RICO suit likely undid any chance I had.
It probably did not help that I was, at that time, a brash young man. I have mellowed a lot in my later years. For example, I had my toddler daughter telling people that when she grows up she wanted to be a "corporate raider". That did not endure me to anybody. Ultimately, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending yourself was not all that pleasant.
In hindsight, however, it was probably my first practice niche.
To keep the lights on and to fund the voting trust work, my wife and I ventured into all kinds of legal work. Most of it I did not like, such as family law, personal injury, criminal defense. And, when you need to make money fast, you will gravitate toward something you know. In my case, from law school, that was bankruptcy.
At that point, there was great resistance in the minds of most consumers concerning the filing of "bankruptcy". Except, while venturing into the field, I started thinking about Chapter 13. Although added to the Code in 1978, it was little used at the time. There was no legal practices dedicated to it, and nobody knew how to market it. I checked and found that only two such cases had been filed in my area of the state in the prior year. So, when I told everyone I knew that I was leaving the other practices to build a Chapter 13 bankruptcy practice, they asked, "what is that?" When I explained what it was, their reaction was "you are crazy".
I thought I had figured out two things. First, that people did not want local lenders (which predominated at the time) recovering nothing. They wanted to repay the debts they could. Also, most had heard that if they filed bankruptcy, that they would lose their house and vehicles. What they wanted was a separation from their creditors, prohibiting hassassment, as they tried to pay their creditors back. And second, if I could convince the Court to garnish the wages of those filing, and have the plan payments paid by the employer to the trustee, that I could accept a little money down, and still be relatively secure that I would get paid for my work. This practice is common now, but it was virtually unheard of at the time. I received resistence from everyone involved. To the amazement of most working with me, I began receiving stacks of checks from the Trustee each and every month.
I started promoting what I did not as "straight bankruptcy" but as "Consolidate and Lower Your Bills!" I eventually put in recorded phone lines (this is before the Internet) to explain in detail of what we could do, to allow debtors to prequalify themselves. I increased by many times the number of bankruptcies filed in my area of the state. Further, in the Eastern District of Texas, far more Chapter 13 cases were filed than Chapter 7s, which at the time simply did not occur elsewhere.
Court was held not in Texarkana, where I lived, but in Tyler, Texas, some two plus hours by car. Again, before the Internet, I would have to drive this four or five hour round trip at least once a week. So, instead of sitting in Tyler waiting on Court, I decided to open an office there as well. This worked, and as cases increased in Tyler, I could eventually move from Texarkana to Tyler. This lead to offices not only in Texarkana and Tyler, but Longview, Marshall, Nacodoches, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas as well. Eventually, I fatefully moved away from my beloved piney woods to Dallas as the practice grew.
In hindsight, this was the formation of my new niche practice, but I did not recognize it as such at the time.
A few things happened on the way to building one of the largest bankruptcy firms in the state. First, it was costly in terms of lawyers, advertising budgets, office space and the like. I just wanted something more simple to operate. Second, no good thing goes unnoticed, especially when you are on TV everyday, all day, promoting it. So, at its apex there were many more players in the market and growth was stymied. Third, as more lawyers got in, there was downward pressure on the fees courts allowed to be paid to the attorneys in 13s. And fourth, my colleagues decided to complain to the Bar about the fact that I advertise. Some in the Texas Bar thought, for their part, that to prevent me from advertising that they needed to adopt rules on advertising and try to disbar me for my advertising. This lead to lawsuits in the Texas Supreme Court and the Federal District Court to undo the Bar's advertising rules, and we were mainly successful.
I remember reminiscing with Richard Shapero, after he won his U.S. Supreme Court case against the Kentucky Bar Association in 1988, wherein he defied the Bar's blanket prohibition of lawyers to use direct mail to solicite clients. His disbarement was imminent as well if he lost, and for a while I thought I might be on a course of following him to the Supreme Court for releif. He and I agreed that, despite the honor of being recognized as trailblazers, the arrows in the back really hurt.
By the time this stage was over, I wanted a change. I wanted to move back to the piney woods but be close to a large city. I wanted to be with my children as the grew up. We settled on The Woodlands, just North of Houston. It was on the cusp of the piney woods and the coastal plains. We could live in the woods and be at the beach in a little over an hour. It was by a major airport, so the entire State of Texas was accessible. The problem was that I had no business in Houston, and was not interested in expanding my existing Chapter 13 practice.
In thinking how do I make a move to The Woodlands work, I realized that over the years that I had begun to prosecute automatic stay violations involved in my firm's Chapter 13 cass. All of the other attorneys and staff in the firm were busy with the 13 practice. Prosecuting violations was looked on as wicked stepchild. So, I just handled those cases as they came up. What I thought I recognized was a new niche that might be able to survive IF overhead could be kept to a minimum. I have got to tell you that everyone thought I was crazy. There were no more than a handful of such cases filed in the entire state a year. I would have to file that many a month. Further, not one term in the right to file stay violation cases had been properly defined. Nobody much knew how to handle a private right of action in the bankrupcy courts, and nobody really much knew what a private right of action in bankruptcy meant.
What I decided to do was to break up the firm and let the lawyers have the offices and cases they wanted. I would liquidate out what they did not want to take. I took a cubicle from the practice, a few office supplies, a couple of chairs, a computer, monitor, printer and fax machine, got a house in The Woodlands, and set my law practice in the gameroom upstairs. I started cold calling all of my former collegues around the state in an effort to get them to understand and recognize these violations, and then to refer them to me.
I have now done this work from my home on a state-wide basis since 1999. The tech has improved over the years to make the work much easier.
I came to understand the means and benefits of network or referral-based marketing, and I became good at building such a base.
It is not so much that I do not want to do other things, explore other niches, but I have been working sense to put my children through school, then college and professional schools.
I think about change every day. I like the challenge of building something new. I follow other niche practices online to see just how innovative other lawyers can be. I spend time talking to others about how to make these practice changes from my experiences and observations.
The gloriousness of starting over is that it is just you, a blank piece of paper or computer screen, and an idea. I can guarantee you nobody will much appreciate your thoughts but you. If you fail, everyone will notice. If you prevail, the only persons that will care will be you and your family. You kind of know what you want to accomplish, but you do not know exactly how to get there. You are focused because you have to be. But, you know what? I have always been more than happy to quietly relish my accomplishments, whether anybody but me recognizes them or not.
What you come to realize in this process is that it is not all that scary if you will just do so in a way that keeps overhead -- the cost of start up -- extremely low, making what you earn profit. The practice of law is one of the few businesses that lends itself well to this model.
As well, I have come to realize, as I get older, that maybe this niche is not for me in the longer term. I really do not want to be in my 60s and still battling it out in the courtroom. I want to travel the back roads of Texas more often while there are still back roads of Texas. I want to lose myself more often in the swamps and bayous of the Big Thicket. This lends itself to a more transactional practice, I think. Something that I can do into my 80s if I so desire.
I harken back to what I really wanted to do in the first place. I wanted to revolutionize the title practice. It was beyond my financial ability to do this early on out of law school, although I spent hours researching it and thinking about how to do it. But, I am detail oriented and technology has come a long way since the late 1980s. I also have an interest in building low costs, sustainale, energy neutral, universally designed homes using no wood or metal in the construction, and which are built mainly out of air. (Don't ask -- I just get facinated by the possibility of things I really do not know that much, but want to learn more, about).
But, the question then I have, as most attorneys have in their lives, is should I stay with what I am doing, or should I go and do something else?
It is probably a harder question than law graduates have starting out, because most attorneys, whether it is the amount they want to make, have to decide on how much they are willing to risk to do such a thing. It is easy to bet everything you have on a single roll of the dice if you do not have much. It gets harder later on.
So, I ask, should I stay or should I go?
Give my your thoughts and opinions.
As well, think about this as it concerns you and your practice. Are you ready for a new start or challenge.