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Ever heard of solo lawyer Donna Newman? Just two and a half years ago, she, like many of us, was just another anonymous, hard working solo practitioner who occasionally picked up court appointments for indigent defendants facing federal charges. But in May 2002, she was appointed by a federal judge to represent Jose Padilla — who shortly thereafter was classified by the Bush Administration as an “enemy combatant” and sent off to a military prison where he has been denied access to counsel and never been charged with a crime. Since then, Ms. Newman has fought vigorously to free Padilla all the way up to the United States Supreme Court ( Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 124 S. Ct. 2711 (2004)), setting historic precedent and becoming a renowned expert on novel areas of constitutional, human rights and military law in the process. Newman’s story bears out what I’ve long observed about solo practice: that the most amazing opportunities for solo and small firm lawyers to soar come not by design but by sheer accident. There are plenty of other examples, too. Baltimore attorney Robin Page West stumbled into the lucrative area of “qui tam” litigation when she accepted a referral from another attorney too busy to research this area of law. Today, West has litigated more qui tam cases, written a book on the subject and gained recognition as an expert in the field. If not for accident, Sterling DeRamus might have remained just another general practitioner in Birmingham, Ala. But these days, he’s regarded as the local guru on highly specialized technical federal statutes like the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), COBRA and ERISA, a status which attracts referrals from attorneys in other practice areas. And it’s all because when clients happened into his office with these types of claims, DeRamus took the time to research those statutes — where he had no experience — instead of letting the complex subject matter intimidate him. As for me, I fell into my niche practice area of ocean energy law a few months after I opened my doors. A client from my former firm wanted to obtain a permit for an underwater windmill device that would generate electricity from ocean currents and consulted me about the applicable regulatory requirements. Since my client’s project was the first of its kind in the United States, I needed to piece together dozens of potentially applicable statutes and regulations to cobble together a strategy. But within a year, I’d written an article on the topic and started speaking on offshore renewable development — and as a young attorney, I gained a reputation as an expert both in the U.S. and abroad in a practice area that typically requires two decades of practice to make a name for oneself. It’s no coincidence that these examples of accidental practices all involve solo and small firm attorneys. Because we run our own ship, we’re best situated to act quickly when a novel or new matter crosses our path. And because we have a propensity for risk, we’re not scared off by the prospect of taking on a case that involves an area of law with which we have no experience. Contrast the solo mentality to that of a large firm, where a new client matter involving a unique or complicated legal question of first impression would require an endless litany of conflict tests, committee meetings and preliminary (but still exhaustive) associate research before the firm would make a decision on whether to accept the case. By that time, the client would probably have sought out other counsel. Although by definition, an accidental practice arises by chance, there are plenty of actions you can take to increase the likelihood that you’ll experience an “accident” and prepare yourself to seize opportunities when they come your way. 1. THROW YOURSELF INTO HARM’S WAY We all know that recklessness breeds accidents. So be reckless — or at least, spontaneous. Set aside that business plan, crumple up that marketing checklist, toss out the how-to guide for building a practice in a specific practice area like probate or personal injury. Instead, take some time and venture into unknown territory. Perhaps that means signing up for a pro bono course in a practice area where you have no experience or volunteering to organize a presentation for the local bar or a community group on a topic with which you have no familiarity. In doing this, you’ll come in contact with a different groups of people who just might provide you with the kind of lead you’re looking for. 2. START TALKING Chatting on the cell phone is probably one of the greatest contributing factors to driving accidents. Likewise, endless talking is the best route toward an accidental practice. If you meet someone at the library or in line at the store, mention that you’re an attorney and ask them about what they do. If you’re asked for advice, inquire more about the person’s problem — he or she might have a legal issue worth pursuing. Most of all, talk to your clients — thoroughly. For example, a small business owner seeking representation in defending against a lawsuit might mention in passing that he’s had problems with his insurer in the past — and you might find yourself sitting on top of a bad faith action. Or a family law attorney who comes in for representation in a divorce proceeding might mention that she’s just been fired from her job because her boss made a pass at her after learning of her new single status. Suddenly, by chance, you’ve got an instant ticket into an employment law matter should you choose to accept it. Finally, talk to other attorneys and make a point of mentioning that you’re always looking for new work in a variety of practice areas. Many attorneys may misjudge the value of a case if they’re not familiar with all of the potential causes of action (for example, the matter might provide for attorneys fees by statute) or — as Robin West can attest to — they simply may not have the time to research an esoteric matter themselves. 3. LEARN, LEARN, LEARN Once you find a potential lead into a new field, learn as much as you can about it. Run a couple of quick computerized searches to get the lay of the land, and visit the local law library to search out treatises, law review articles and trade press publications. If there’s a listserve devoted to these issues, send around a few questions by e-mail. Run some Google searches and find any relevant Web logs that might enable you to pick up substance quickly. Finally, if the matter puts you before a court or agency where you’ve never practiced, call up a clerk for assistance with procedural matters or an agency staffer who might share some of the agency’s past experience with the issue. Most importantly, try to find another attorney who’s handled similar cases who’d be willing to act as a sounding board or mentor. 4. JUST DO IT Once you’ve completed your due diligence on the new subject matter, it’s time to take a deep breath, cast aside doubt and dive into the new matter with confidence. I’ve often found that whenever I enter a new area, by necessity, I operate far more carefully than with tasks that I’ve handled dozens of times before. Also, many times, a novice might bring a new perspective that a jaded attorney overlooks. Back in the days when I handled criminal defense work, I once asked a judge to dismiss my client’s case because the prosecutor had failed to respond to my discovery requests. The judge complied. But my co-counsel, who’d been handling cases far longer than I hadn’t bothered to ask for a dismissal because he assumed based on his experience that it wouldn’t be granted. 5. FOLLOW UP Once you stumble into a new practice area that you enjoy, it’s critical to follow up or you’ll waste the opportunity. One of the quickest ways to gain mileage from new expertise is through writing an article for a law review or even a bar journal. By this time, the costs are sunk since you’ll have done the bulk of the research anyway back when you investigated the new practice area. Thus, it’s just a matter of transforming those notes into publishable copy that in turn, will give you instant credibility. If the field is one of sufficient interest — and appears to have lucrative potential — you could also commit to the longer term endeavor of starting a Web log on the topic. Next, begin to identify other potential target markets for your new expertise. Sometimes, with a unique specialization, other attorneys are often the best sources of new business. This was the case with Sterling DeRamus who found that bankruptcy attorneys in particular were interested in his FDCPA expertise and now send those cases his way. Other times, you may need to direct your focus at clients, perhaps by attending or speaking at a trade association meeting or convention that attracts your target group. Finally, make yourself available to reporters, because as your name circulates in the press, other clients with similar matters may find their way to you. The next time you find yourself toiling away at your practice, wondering if you’ll ever earn a decent living, make a name for yourself or leave a permanent mark, don’t despair. One of the best things about solo practice is that there’s always an accident waiting to happen. If you’re lucky, the next one will find its way to you soon. Carolyn Elefant is founder and principal attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C. and counsel to the Law Offices of Scott Hempling in Silver Spring, Md. In 2002, Ms. Elefant created My Shingle.com, a Web log for solo and small firm practitioners and lawyers who dream of starting a practice. Ms. Elefant invites inquiries about her law practice or starting a law firm by email at loce@his.com. Read Ms. Elefant’s bio.

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