There’s a stigma out there that says attorneys only care about getting every last cent they can out of people. And while that may be true if you’re an attorney who goes up against bigger corporations in court for big settlements, this notion typically doesn’t ring true for most attorneys, especially when they’re working with
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.…
Continue Reading An Interview With Michelle Estlund: How She Found a Niche
If you’ve been following us for a while, then you know we offer our clients social media marketing. However, we also understand the drive many lawyers feel to try their hand at managing their business’s online persona themselves. If you’re tackling your firm’s social media presence alone, try these two proven strategies to make the…
The following is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.
Everyone knows that success in business is in direct correlation with the relationships one fosters. In the legal profession, relationships have been the foundation of building a practice or a career path. It was the only option before lawyers were allowed to advertise and certainly before social media.
Many internet marketers beat the drum about SEO and pay-per-click advertising. They have their place in a modern business development strategy, but they will never replace a good old-fashioned relationship.
So how do you build relationships that matter? One of the ways is to listen—be present. You never know where a seemingly insignificant conversation may lead. To listen is the greatest gift you can give another human being. We all know the feeling we get when someone isn’t listening. It’s dismissive and demeaning, certainly not conducive to building relationships.
There is a secret to building relationships that matter, relationships that are genuine and authentic. It’s about looking for opportunities to connect on common ground.
I spoke with a lawyer that is a master relationship builders. Clarissa Rodriguez is a shining example of why building relationships is the key to a practice you love. She’s a commercial litigator and an international arbitrator. She describes herself as becoming Indiana Jones.
Black: So Clarissa, I am dying to hear the backstory of you becoming Indiana Jones.
Rodriguez: Well, believe it or not, Indiana Jones raised me. I can recite any line from any of the first three films cold. At age nine, I boldly declared to my parents that I’d be an archeologist when I grew up. Instead of being proud or impressed, my parents were practical. They reminded me I didn’t like the outdoors. I’d prove them wrong and try to camp in our backyard, but I wouldn’t make it to sundown. Archeology seemed out of the question.
Despite the setback, I found myself taking church history courses, art classes, and getting a minor in anthropology in college. I didn’t, however, become an archeologist. I became an attorney.
My practice area has always been international. Miami being the hub between Latin America and Europe has afforded me the chance to work with international clients on cross-border investments, international arbitration, and litigation.
This focus drew me to professional organizations for international practitioners, like the Miami International Arbitration Society and the Florida Bar International Law Section. I volunteered for everything to get involved, and it paid off. Within a few years, I found myself voted on the executive council of the International Law Section, and later onto the executive board. I’m slated to become the fourth woman president of the International Law Section in thirty-eight years.
Every year, the International Law Section hosts a premier conference in Miami, titled the iLaw. The iLaw 2017 invited world renowned Donald S. Burris to be the keynote speaker. Mr. Burris’s work was characterized in the movie Woman in Gold.
As you may know, Woman in Gold is a film starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, about Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann’s fight against the Austrian government to retrieve a series of Nazi-looted art taken from her family during World War II. It happens that Maria’s family had commissioned the artist Gustav Klimt to paint the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. He painted what would be called Woman in Gold, also known as Austria’s Mona Lisa.
Maria Altmann’s quest was to get back her family’s art collection. She hired a friend of the family, Randy Schoenberg. He was a solo practitioner renting a cubicle in the same building as Don Burris.
Black: Neither Randy nor Mr. Burris were big firm lawyers?
Rodriguez: No, neither. Amazing, right? Randy and Mr. Burris had been friends for years. Mr. Burris bumped into Randy in the elevator of his office building. He asked Randy what was going on and catching up, when Randy mentioned he had opened up his own firm and needed help with the Altmann case. Don agreed to help.
Black: So did either of them have experience in restituting looted art?
Rodriguez: No. Neither of them had experience retrieving art from anyone, much less looted art. Together they sued the Austrian government, and fought for eleven years to retrieve the artwork. They successfully argued before the Supreme Court and won the right to sue the Austrian government.
Once they had the right to sue Austria, they engaged in an international arbitration and won. The Austrian government was compelled to return the entire collection to the Altmann family, consisting of eleven pieces of art, setting the precedent for this kind of work.
The movie Woman in Gold chronicles the legal battle. And since then, Mr. Burris has become the preeminent legal expert in the field of looted art and its restitution. Hearing this, I knew I would enjoy his talk at the conference.
Black: How did it come about that you met Mr. Burris?
Rodriguez: The International Law Section was hosting an opening ceremony cocktail party for the iLaw conference, and I was asked to entertain Mr. Burris and his wife, a California couple in their seventies, and make them feel welcome. I was hooked.
Mr. Burris and his wife invited me to dinner, and by the end of the night, I had an invitation to their home in Los Angeles. We became instant friends, and he insisted I call him Don.
The next day, at the conference, his speech “From Tragedy to Triumph: Altmann, Benningson, and the Pursuit of Looted Art” was a splash of cold water on me. His work was impressive, inherently noble, and utterly captivating. For days I couldn’t stop thinking about Don’s lecture. It was an adrenaline rush.
Fast forward to a few days later, when you and I had our follow-up meeting to develop my practice. You knew I had lots of international work experience. And I remember we were trying to find the right one to explore and focus on. Casually, I mentioned the conference and began talking about Don, and suddenly your eyes widened. You screamed, and “Wait, stop!” Remember?
Black: Oh, yes, I do.
Rodriguez: You asked, “Why didn’t you start our session with this? Are you listening to what you’re saying?”
Honestly, no. I was telling you about meeting this amazing man with this incredible practice. And what you heard was me discuss the invitation to dinner, the invitation to visit in LA, and the invitation to stay in touch. It had not occurred to me that these invitations meant something. You recognized I had a connection with Don because of our mutual passion and his area of practice. It was international, historical, and unique; it was exactly what I wanted to do.…
Continue Reading An Interview with Litigator Clarissa Rodriguez: How I Became Indiana Jones
Are you struggling to charge what you deserve? Raising your rates can be tricky, and right now, it might seem particularly tough or even insensitive to consider. That’s because, as we write this, our economy is in the very early stages of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. However, not only do you deserve to be…
If you listen to the majority of legal marketing companies out there, they’ll likely tell you that the only way people are going to find the awesome website you have is if you appease the Google gods and do a plethora of things to get Google’s attention. But that’s only because they want to sell…
My friend Candace Duff is a litigator, mediator and author. Between the two of us we have self-published 10 books. You can say, “we know the ropes.” And most importantly what a book can do for your practice. We have collaborated here to inspire you to consider what a book could do for you.
A few years ago I wrote in my blog – In Black and White blog: Are you developing business by optimism and serendipity? Here was some of the insights I shared with readers to develop business with intention and strategy.
Increasing your Credibility: Where can you give speeches to reach your prospective clients or referral…
Your marketing strategy is the key to growing your law firm. If your marketing strategy is stale (or non-existent) you’re not going to fuel the growth you’re hoping for. On the other hand, an effective marketing strategy will help you bring in new clients, generate more referrals, and even help you justify higher rates. In…
Are you having marketing meetings? Talk is cheap. Buy-in and action is key. Thinking and planning is the easy part for lawyers. Implementation is not. Too often it is where the plan falls apart. Remember that discussions, meetings, and planning are only the start. The key is taking ACTION. The big question… What actions should…