The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in a significant loss of business for many lawyers and law firms. Certain practice areas have been hit particularly hard, and many companies are not spending because they do not have a clear picture of what the future holds.
Whether you represent individuals regarding estate planning or you represent businesses in contract negotiations and intellectual property (IP) matters, if your billable hours are down, you might be thinking about branching out. Or maybe you have identified an opportunity outside of your practice's normal scope, and you want to position yourself at the forefront of an emerging area of the law. In either case, you are thinking about expanding your practice, and you are wondering: What are the considerations involved?
First and foremost, as a lawyer, you owe a duty of competence to your clients. As stated in Rule 1.1. of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct: "A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation."
To expand into a new practice area, you must have the knowledge and skill required to represent your clients effectively. If you do not, not only will you be putting your professional reputation (and license) at risk, but you will also be doing a disservice to your clients.
When venturing into a new practice area, you must prepare to spend a significant amount of time on research and self-education. So one of the first questions you need to answer is: Do you have enough time available? If you do, then you must think about billing next. Are your clients going to be okay with you billing them simply for the time it takes to get yourself up to speed on the law? Or are they going to wonder why they are paying you so much when they could be paying someone else who has more experience in their area of need a lesser amount? Expanding into new practice areas is fiscally, mentally and time-consuming, so you must be prepared to put in the work.
How are you going to market your new practice area? It will not be worth the time and effort to get yourself up to speed if you do not have the financial resources necessary to effectively market your new knowledge and skills. On the same token, when marketing your new practice area, you must be careful to avoid any vague or misleading representations that could falsely suggest that you have more experience than you do.
Finally, while keeping your practice afloat is a priority, it's important not to lose sight of why you became a lawyer in the first place. More likely than not, you are practicing in your current area (or areas) because you enjoy what you do. If you shift your practice's focus solely to make money, will you still find it fulfilling, or will you need to find another way to restore your passion for representing your clients? Make sure to consider the implications of making this change, so you're prepared for all that comes with it.