Independent Thinking: Using Your Passions to Distinguish Your Practice

April 30, 2013

Small Law: Independent ThinkingThe decision to start my own law practice was not an easy one. It was daunting, actually. Not only because I would no longer receive a weekly paycheck, but because I would be a needle in a haystack called New York City.

Why would anyone hire me?
What areas of law should I practice?
How would I find clients?

These questions intimidated me and often made me doubt my decision of hanging up my own shingle. However, I did not let fear hold me back.

So, who am I? I am a young minority woman. Three characteristics that are the exact opposites of the stereotypical “American lawyer.” Although it took some time for me to realize it, those were the very characteristics that would be my greatest attributes. I attended numerous networking and marketing events for lawyers in search of the magic formula for successful marketing. None was ever revealed. All I heard was, “find your niche.” There also seemed to be a common belief among the speakers that minority lawyers have an automatic niche from the moment they are sworn in – “their people.” Well, that simply is not true.

As many minority lawyers may already know, in most minority communities, there is an unspoken, albeit unfounded, notion that the stereotypical American lawyers – old white males – know more law and are, therefore, better lawyers. It is almost as if there are some top-secret laws which are only accessible to non-young, non-minority, and non-woman lawyers. Consequently, given the choice, “my people,” probably would not hire me to be their lawyer over a Smith, Johnson, or Williams.

In addition to missing out my so-called automatic niche, I also realized that many people were (and still are) surprised to learn that I am a lawyer. Why? Because I looked too happy and did not act as stern as lawyers “should.” In fact, I was criticized for using a smiling picture for my website and was told that no one would take me seriously if I looked friendly. Then, I wondered how unhappy and grim I should look to convey to potential clients that I am worthy of hiring? I decided that the answer to that question was, “it does not matter.” In fact, I wanted to change the way the new generation views lawyers – as approachable and friendly rather than unhappy and stern.

So, I embarked on a mission to re-discover myself, the self I neglected throughout my pursuit of a legal career. I remembered that I had a life before I became a lawyer. And in that period of my life, I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist; I worked in museums and created works of art; and I traveled that world. I met wonderful, talented individuals who enjoyed happiness. Those forgotten aspects of my life were still lingering somewhere inside of me. Finally, it was time to bring them back out into light.

There was no reason why I could not incorporate my life-long passions into my passion for law. That is when I realized that those experiences and connections were my niche. I did not have to transform into a needlessly serious, smile-less person to be a successful lawyer. I did not have to limit my practice by focusing exclusively on my ethnic or cultural background, and I certainly did not have to limit my practice areas to mainstream areas of law.

By targeting clients who have the same interests, I was able to broaden the types of people I would serve, while decreasing the risk of facing bias for my age, gender and background.  I believe that in the end, people want to conduct business with those they like, those with whom they feel comfortable, those who have genuine human qualities.

It was liberating, powerful, and exciting to realize that I could finally showcase who I really am through my legal practice and that I can portray my true self without worrying about portraying the image of the stereotypical American lawyer. I am the modern day American lawyer and I have learned to embrace that fact.