This is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.
When I talk to lawyers about finding a niche, there’s usually an audible groan. Most lawyers want to leave their options open. They say, “I can do a lot of things, so why not make a list that says that I can do them all?” Two reasons come to mind.
One is that a long list signals that you’re not an expert at any of them. And two, it’s hard to get referrals, because no one can remember what you do. It takes courage and vision to draw a line in the sand and declare your specialty—your little corner of the world, so to speak. And it requires tenacity to become known for that niche, so you need to enjoy it.
Not many lawyers have the courage, the vision, or the tenacity to become known for a specialty like Michelle Estlund. She will tell you how she found a niche she enjoys and became an authority in the area. Michelle Estlund is the most recognized Interpol defense lawyer in the world. Yes, I said world.
Black: Michelle, what was going on with your practice when you realized something needed to change?
Estlund: I had been practicing criminal defense for most of my career when I met you, and I really enjoyed it, but I was also feeling complacent. I knew that I wanted to add something to my practice and grow it into a very complementary part of my life, rather than just have a job or even just a career.
And I remember that in our discussions you had told me several times about developing a niche practice and to kind of be on the lookout for that. I remember you encouraged me to focus on a very specific area. And I had heard this from other sources also, but it seemed like so many things related to criminal law were already saturated with specialty attorneys.
I knew that I loved criminal law. I loved human rights and politics. But I didn’t really honestly think I could mesh all those things together in a law practice that I both cared about and would be lucrative. I thought, that will just never happen.
Black: Explain how your “aha” moment came about.
Estlund: I remember that a client walked into my office with an Interpol case and asked if I could help. This client was wanted out of Venezuela. This was at a time when the Venezuelan government was nationalizing various industries—including the banking industry. And in order to obtain the assets being held by this particular bank, the government had issued arrest warrants for the heads of the bank and the people who were on the board of directors, including that particular client.
I started researching extensively, and what I realized was that there was no real in-depth treatment of Interpol anywhere online. I saw that even the attorneys who were advertising themselves as being experienced were in fact not, once you did a little bit of digging. Nobody was looking at this on a profound level and I realized I could do better than nobody.
Black: I remember what happened next.
Estlund: I told you, “I think I have an idea,” and I told you about the Interpol research I had done and the client that had approached me. And I remember you smiled and told me I had to give you my credit card so we could buy a URL and start a blog. I remember that I did take out my credit card and hand it to you, and I did not want to let go of it because I knew that once I did, that this thing was going to start—and that was really scary for me.
I remember that you told me, “You’ll be the leading expert on Interpol,” and I knew that you were a crazy person. And turns out that kind of ended up happening, didn’t it?
Black: What were the obstacles that almost stopped you?
Estlund: I think my primary limitation at that time was a concern or a fear of criticism. And this might sound odd coming from somebody who is a criminal defense trial attorney, who should be used to criticism and used to hearing no, but this was different for me, because it wasn’t a set of facts in a case that was presented to me, for me to protect and defend another person. This was for me, which is often more difficult. It was my writing, my thoughts, and my ideas. The idea of something that personal being critiqued was very challenging for me.
I wanted to start a blog that was geared toward other attorneys, potential clients, academics, and people like that with the goal of educating people about Interpol, establishing credibility for myself, I wanted to attract clients, of course, and I wanted to advocate for reform where it was needed. Like I said, part of what I wanted to do was advocate for reform of Interpol proceedings, and I was worried that people would think, well, who does she think she is? Why would we listen to this Miami lawyer over in Europe?
This is an international, quasi-legal organization, and I just didn’t feel that I had the gravitas that I needed in order to effect change.
Also, I was worried more personally for my practice—that if I publicized myself as being a specialist or focusing in a niche practice, people would think that that’s all I could do, that I’m a one-trick pony. So those were my concerns.
Black:What was your strategy?
Estlund: In terms of strategy, I can’t say that I had a specific strategy thought out, other than I knew who my target audience was going to be, and I knew that I wanted to serve as a source of information that wasn’t otherwise readily available. And I hoped that consistent blogging about my topic would also force me to stay on my toes, and it has.
Black: So what did you learn, and how did you muster up the courage?
Estlund: I eventually accepted that no one knows everything, even experts. And I remembered my favorite, most well respected professors and mentors throughout my life all had something in common. It was that they didn’t back away from saying “I don’t know,” because they loved what they did, and they knew how to go find out the information that they needed. I knew I could do that too.
I also realized that we can’t wait until we’re not afraid to act. It’s not brave if you’re not scared. Even the most seasoned attorneys are afraid of something. For me, it’s not judges, it’s not juries, it’s not law enforcement officers, and it’s not public speaking. For me, what I was really afraid of was writing about something I cared about and having it not be perfect in public and online.
I worked obsessively for weeks to research, write, and edit my first few posts that would be used to launch my blog. I liked what I wrote, but then I almost didn’t publish, because everything would be out there, and that was really scary for me.
There is a movie called We Bought a Zoo, and there’s a line in that movie that goes like this: the lead character says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and I promise you something great will come of it.”
For me, simple and small as it sounds, my twenty seconds were when I clicked publish and nothing bad happened. Actually, nothing happened at all for two or three months, and then my readership went up. The Department of Justice and Interpol and universities and private individuals were reading my blog, and I knew it because I could see my analytics. People started calling me. People started consulting me. And people started retaining me.
Black: What do you find satisfying about your practice now?
Estlund: I have to say that one of the most satisfying elements of my practice is that I can provide my clients with one of the most basic human needs, and that is to be heard. When they tell me their stories, and I put the story into writing, and I back it up with evidence, we submit that to Interpol and ask for help.
Many of my clients have expressed to me that even after our first meeting they feel a sense of relief and release just from being heard. And by the time we bring their case to the attention of Interpol, they know that someone has not only listened, but is on their side in a pretty epic battle. That is extremely valuable to me on a personal level.
Black: What advice would you give others?
Estlund: I guess I would first say, you need to invest financially and invest your time in your craft, if you want to be outstanding. Nobody wants to spend money on un-fun stuff. When you spend money in targeted ways, to advance your career, it does come back to you.
I travel to seminars, even if I’m not speaking or even if they’re very small, when I know that someone I want to meet will be there, or that I will learn something, even if it’s little. Most people won’t do that.
I spend money on my blog maintenance—although you can do them for free, too—because I get better traction that way and that traction brings me cases.
I take time, aside from actually working on my cases, to write a blog, to maintain contact with people who are in the field, and to stay on top of my game, because I know that if I don’t, somebody else will.
When you’re in doubt about doing something or not, do the affirmative. Say yes. Just do it. If you take a step, or if you say yes to an opportunity, something could happen. It’s not certain, but if you don’t take the step, nothing will happen—and that is certain.
Listen, it can be easy to burn out. It can be really easy to lose steam or lose faith. The law is hard work when it’s done right. But when you seek out motivated people, or you go to relevant seminars, or you reach out to congratulate someone, or just ask a colleague to lunch to learn more about how they work at a personal or professional level, you’re increasing your level of engagement in your profession.
The law is personal, or at least it should be, in my opinion. Staying engaged allows us to stay motivated, relevant, and informed. And that’s how our practices can feel more alive and more vibrant.
Black: What does your Interpol practice look like today?
Estlund: I’ve been really, really lucky after including Interpol in my practice to be able to see that both domestic and international government agencies read my blog, that leading human rights organizations in the United States and Europe consult with me on Interpol issues.
I even was able to attend a European Parliament symposium on red-notice abuse. Not a lot of people have had a chance to do that, and that’s what this has done for my practice.
I have clients from all over the globe that I’ve successfully represented before Interpol, and I talk with journalists on Interpol matters pretty frequently, and give interviews to the media and advise about Interpol matters.
I’ve developed new contacts with attorneys who live abroad, and I have friendships that I never would have anticipated. I think that one of the best things that’s come about as a result of my Interpol practice is that I had the privilege of representing a former CIA operative pro bono in a case where the US government, in my opinion, abandoned him.
My blog readership now includes people from all over the world—think tanks, journalists, academics, prospective and past clients, and other attorneys. I’ve seen that my practice has evolved. I now am able to be more selective in the number and the types of cases that I choose to accept. And my fee structure has evolved as well.
Black: Are you glad you gave me your credit card that day years ago?
Estlund: I am. I thought you were so crazy, but yes. Yes.
Michelle’s story illustrates the power of drawing a line in the sand. She found a niche that she was passionate about on multiple levels, made a commitment, even though it was scary, and she never looked back.
Michelle set out to invest her time and money to differentiate herself in her local market. What she found was a global community she loves working with and clients she connects to on a profound level. She created a life, not just a living.