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.
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