Building the 21st Century Law Firm

Ask Daliah: It's OK to start as a generalist, then choose a practice

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Daliah Saper.

Dear Daliah: How did you choose your practice area? Is it better to start out a generalist or a specialist?

(Culled from online questions)

Dear Questioners: There are two philosophies when it comes to hanging your own shingle: Take anything that walks in the door, or focus on a specific area or areas.

When you first start out, it may be tempting to take the first route. Why turn down potential clients because of self-imposed restrictions? But the problem with being a jack-of-all-trades, as the old adage goes, is that you are master of none.

That’s not to say that you can’t start out as a generalist in order to figure out where to settle on focusing your practice. When I started Saper Law, I was a 24-year-old recent grad with less than a year of legal experience under my belt. At my first job out of school, I had handled some commercial litigation and built on my limited trademark and copyright experience, but I doubted that I could attract that kind of business on my own.

I figured I should I try handling real estate closings, so I attended a seminar held by a local title company. I also dabbled in family law and some odd business disputes. Most of my clients were derived from free Craigslist ads. (You wouldn’t believe what you can barter for in exchange for legal services. Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about clothes, home repairs and free tickets to events.)

Fairly quickly I realized that I was scrambling to learn a little about everything without really getting good at anything. In addition, I was constantly dealing with unsophisticated clients who didn’t want to pay my bills. That’s when I made the affirmative decision to stop telling people I was a lawyer and instead, stated the kind of lawyer I was.

Better yet, since I couldn’t compete with all the other lawyers (on Craigslist), I decided to try and create a new category of law firm—one where discerning clients preferred to hire a 24-year-old instead of a seasoned attorney at a white shoe firm. I was an internet lawyer; a social media attorney; someone who understood domain names and IP addresses. (*This was especially impressive in 2005.)

Pretty soon, I found myself getting invited to speak on panels alongside BigLaw attorneys. After our talk, they would approach me and ask if I could help them create a Facebook account, or, after proclaiming they understood the law, they’d ask “How did Twitter, Pinterest or FourSquare work exactly?” (Remember Foursquare?)

Novel cases followed. I argued a case before the Illinois Supreme Court where my client, the plaintiff, had been “catfished.” Most recently, I am helping victims of revenge porn.

In sum, allow yourself an exploratory phase to decide the best type of law to practice. However, don’t wait too long. The sooner you become the go-to guy for XYZ law, the better.

Daliah Saper, founder of Saper Law Offices, is answering reader questions about building a 21st-century law firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

Daliah Saper opened Saper Law Offices, an intellectual property, digital media, entertainment and business law firm based in Chicago, in 2005. Saper is regularly interviewed on national TV, radio and in several publications, including Fox News, CNN, CNBC, ABC News, 20/20, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. She is an adjunct professor of entertainment law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

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