Niche marketing describes a firm narrowing down its focus to stand out from a marketing perspective. There are many advantages to carving out a niche legal practice. Marketing to a specific area is more cost effective, separates you from the pack, emphasizes your uniqueness, conveys a concentration on a particular area rather than a general practice, and can foster a belief that, by limiting yourself to a chosen field, you will be up-to-date on the latest precedents and well-versed in nuances that could elude a generalist. However, marketing to a niche is vastly different from marketing against a niche, particularly if clients are rejected on the basis of sex.
Florida attorney Kenny Leigh made national headlines recently when CNN ran a story titled “Law Firm Fights Only for Men.” The segment included video of Leigh’s billboard featuring the Web address MenOnlyFamilyLaw.com and in large print and capital letters “DIVORCE: MEN ONLY.” The segment featured two attorneys, Richard Herman from Las Vegas and Avery Friedman from Cleveland, who commented on the advertising. Herman said that it is not discrimination for a private law firm to limit its representation as Leigh does, but questioned whether this firm is better than any other law firm in representing men, concluding that, “The answer is probably no.” He also asked if it provides an advantage for a man to go to this firm, again answering his own question, “Probably not.” Friedman said, “I am heartsick at this kind of approach, conveying to the public that, don’t trust the courts, don’t trust the judges, come to us, we’ll take care of you solely because of your gender, because you’re a man. I think that’s awful.”
Further research turned up an article in The Florida Times-Union by Bridget Murphy who reported that Leigh was changing his slogan to, “Exclusively family law, focusing on men’s rights.” Still, Leigh said he would not represent women, according to the article. “If the bar tells me I have to, then I will litigate the Florida bar that it’s unconstitutional.” He claimed that “the only thing that’s very consistent about family law is how unfair it is to men” and “turns a father into a visitor and a paycheck.” However, Leigh also said, “If I had to base my practice on just good dads, I’d be broke.” An article by Jim Stratton in the Orlando Sentinel reported, “Neither the [American Bar Association] nor the Florida bar has weighed in on the issue of male-oriented firms, but some lawyers are uncomfortable with the idea and reject the premise that men are routinely mistreated in family law cases.” Newser.com reported that the Florida bar “has sent a letter to Leigh reminding him of its policies, but says it would take action only if someone filed a discrimination complaint.” Leigh likened his practice to lawyers who represent only accident victims and not the company or person being sued. He said, “It’s like we’re picking a side rather than picking a gender.”
These stories raised some questions in my mind as a coach who works with clients on executing marketing strategies. Would excluding women from representation by a private law firm fly in Pennsylvania? And, is this “great marketing,” as Herman said, or does it violate a primary responsibility of lawyers by condemning the judicial system and eroding public confidence in our courts, as Friedman said?
I contacted Samuel C. Stretton, who writes about attorney ethics for The Legal and has practiced in the area of legal and judicial ethics for more than 35 years. He began by saying that attorneys may limit their practice of law but “this is a bigger issue, like limiting a practice to white people. I don’t think you can do that.” Stretton emphasized that licensed attorneys take an oath to support, obey and defend the U.S. and state constitutions. He added that lawyers are part of the court system, officers of the court and should not discriminate based on gender. “Lawyers are the oil of democracy,” he said. “We lead the way.”
The Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct state: “A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials.” It also states that “a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”
As for whether it’s great marketing, Stretton commented that “just because they get a few more cases, it’s not worth the damage to the profession.” He recommended instead emphasizing an area without precluding anyone on the basis of sex.
In addition to the harms expressed by Stretton and Friedman, Leigh could be exposed to discrimination claims and the ire of judges who apply the law evenly and do not discriminate on the basis of sex in their rulings. Stretton cited the case of Robert B. Surrick, an attorney who was suspended from the practice of law for five years after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that he had violated a provision of the Rules of Professional Conduct by falsely accusing two lower court judges of “fixing” cases. According to The Associated Press, attorney Don Bailey was suspended by the Supreme Court for five years because he violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by making false statements critical of several federal judges in Pennsylvania.
Leigh’s campaign taps into fears of unfair treatment in the legal system and, by doing so, may alienate those who decide his cases, create unrealistic expectations, and exclude at least half of the population from hiring him. Here are some strategies for positively marketing your niche practice:
- Find a niche that you love or feel passionate about serving.
- Identify who your ideal clients are, where and how you can reach them.
- If, for example, you practice family law and want to attract men in divorce and custody cases, consider public speaking to men’s groups and organizations that fight for dads’ rights, writing about your cases for their newsletters and blogs and presenting continuing legal education courses to build your credibility as an expert.
- Build relationships with the leadership of organizations concerned with issues of your ideal client.
- Use social media and newsletters to inform your target audience about new rulings, legislation and standards in your niche area of practice.
- Ensure that you are up to date on all developments in your niche, and not just the legal aspects. Follow social, psychological and business trends that impact your client base.
- Form alliances with other providers and businesses who do not offer the same services and develop referral sources.
- Learn about the challenges your clients face and market in their language, not legal jargon.
- Work to improve the justice system in a productive way and publicize your efforts.
- Address the fear potential clients have by emphasizing your expertise and focus while adhering to the Rules of Professional Conduct that govern advertising.
Reprinted with permission from the March 11, 2014 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com.