Jacob Slowik found incredible success through niche specialization in his legal career. Many lawyers want to know–can his success story be replicated? Christopher Anderson talks with Jacob about the strategies found in his book, Small Law; Big Success: How to Use Business Niche Specialization to Grow a Multi-Million Dollar Law Practice, co-authored with Yussuf Aleem. Jacob explains the characteristics of profitable niche specializations, pinpoints business elements lawyers should focus on for sustainability, and talks about what marketing looks like when operating in a niche area of the law.
Jacob Slowik is of counsel at Joseph, Aleem & Slowik, LLC.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Nexa, Solo Practice University, Scorpion, and Lawclerk.
The Un-Billable Hour
How to Become Niche
Intro: Managing your law practice can be challenging. Marketing, time management, attracting clients, and all the things besides the cases that you need to do that aren’t billable. Welcome to this edition of The Un-Billable Hour, the Law Practice Advisory Podcast. This is where you will get the information you need from expert guests and host Christopher Anderson, here on Legal Talk Network.
Christopher T. Anderson: Welcome to The Un-Billable Hour, the Law Practice Advisory Podcast helping attorneys achieve more success. We are glad you can listen today on Legal Talk Network.
Today’s episode is about, it’s about marketing and sales and production, because what it’s really about is one of actually my favorite topics, when I have conversations and seminars and CLEs around the country one of the things we talk about a lot is finding your niche. And I get a lot of resistance, people don’t object in the audience, but just I think less, kind of disbelief, like people really want to hold on to the ability to do everything or at least a lot of things.
But we talk a lot about finding your niche and then expounding on that and the clearer you are about who you serve and who you don’t, the clearer your marketing will be, the easier your sales will be, the better your value proposition will be and the easier it will be to create and systematize your production.
So the title of today’s show then is How to Become Niche, and my guest today is Jacob or Jake Slowik. Jake is a 2012 Harvard Law grad and he is now Of-Counsel to Joseph, Aleem & Slowik in Atlanta, which he built with his partner Yussuf Aleem to a multimillion dollar law firm before they were 30 years old. So pay attention folks, you might have something pretty cool to learn here today from Jake.
More specifically, Jake is also the co-author of a book with Yussuf called ‘Small Law; Big Success: How to Use Business Niche Specialization to Grow a Multi-Million Dollar Law Practice’.
And of course I am your host Christopher Anderson and I am an attorney with a singular passion for helping other lawyers achieve success with their law firm businesses. In the Un-Billable Hour each month we explore an area important to help you be a more profitable lawyer through growing your revenues, getting back more of your time and/or getting more professional satisfaction from your business.
The Un-Billable Hour is dedicated to bringing you guests each month to help you learn more about how to make your law firm businesses work for you instead of the other way around.
And of course before we get started I do want to say a thank you to our sponsors, Answer1, Solo Practice University, Scorpion and LAWCLERK.
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Today’s episode of The Un-Billable Hour again is How to Become Niche and my guest once more is Jacob Slowik and he is the author of ‘Small Law; Big Success: How to Use Business Niche Specialization to Grow a Multi-Million Dollar Law Practice’.
And Jake, welcome to The Un-Billable Hour.
Jacob Slowik: Thank you Christopher. It’s an honor to be on.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, we are really happy to have you. So, notoriously as always in The Un-Billable Hour my introduction is brief and incomplete. So I told our listeners that you built with your partner a multimillion dollar law firm by the age of 30, can you just tell us a little bit about that story, like how did you come to the realization that that’s what you were going to do and wanted to do?
Jacob Slowik: Sure. I am happy to tell the story. Yussuf and I were classmates at Harvard Law School and we became friends very quickly. Following graduation we both entered big law. I worked at a big firm in New York, he in Boston. I was doing commercial real estate and other corporate matters and he was on the private equity side.
After a couple of years he moved to Atlanta and took a position as in-house counsel for a healthcare startup, it was a consulting company, and the company’s expertise was building out and developing medical laboratories. And so in that role he initially became exposed to the healthcare industry, legal regulation, the byzantine within healthcare, and he found himself meeting with other startups, other healthcare clients and the resounding, recurring message was always we need help with legal and regulatory matters.
Christopher T. Anderson: Right.
Jacob Slowik: And so he invited me to come south and join him and we began the standalone practice, the law practice and started taking on other clients, other than this consulting company.
So very early on there was a focus on healthcare and generally speaking the practice and the hand we were dealt was to represent companies involved in various aspects of medical laboratories, and here I am talking about toxicology, pathology and genetics testing more specifically.
And it was very organic growth and kind of one introduction led to another introduction, which led to a service provider, which led to another laboratory and so on and so forth, and very soon we kind of growing through our representation on very unique issues and challenges facing these laboratories, we found we were able to develop a pretty steady book of business, representing a few dozen medical laboratories all over the country.
And that growth happened fairly quickly and it was — again, we were focused on the specific laboratory niche and I am sure we will go into more detail about why kind of how that came about.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, I hope so, so in fact, the next thing I wanted to do, I was hoping to figure out a great way to segue since you said book of business, I was going to ask you about the book, but I can’t figure out a good segue so I will just do it. So this is great, so you had this early success, you realized this niche and you joined Yussuf in building it down here in Atlanta.
But then you decided to write this book that we have been talking about here, ‘Small Law; Big Success: How to Use Business Niche Specialization’. So you are there building a law firm, most people when they are getting their law firm started and off the ground and growing don’t then turn around and say hey, let’s write a book about this and you did.
So what made you decide to write the book?
Jacob Slowik: Well, I think a couple of things. We obviously have a very wide network of other attorneys, former classmates, colleagues, and a lot of them through our discussions, people became interested in what we were doing and how we had done it and it occurred to us that what we had done was quite unique, especially given our age.
And I kind of come from more of a case study background, courses in undergrad and law school. I kind of value the idea of reading about a case study and I said, you know, this would make — through informal discussions with Yussuf and with others, I said you know this would be an interesting case study and then it became, well, what are the lessons. Is this — can this be repeated?
And so we kind of set pen to paper and said, are there things that are applicable that can be repeated and other people can use for success in other ways, and I think through writing that out, I think the answer is yes, obviously it’s more of a — it was more of a reverse engineering process than anything.
I can’t say that when I moved down to Atlanta, we had from start to finish blueprints of exactly what was going to happen, that exactly we were going to create this law firm focused on a very specific laboratory niche. But that’s what happened and I think some of the lessons and strategies can be adapted to lots of other niches and done by other attorneys.
So that’s really why we wrote this book.
Christopher T. Anderson: Well, that makes sense. So like when we are talking about can it be replicated, can it be repeated, I think the best place to start answering that question is first of all to really define what we are talking about here, because I think a lot of lawyers know what specialization is, and that some lawyers, particularly lawyers that have listened to me, know what a niche is, but you use four words put together or actually it’s three words put together that might mean something different. So you say business niche specialization, what does it mean when you say business niche specialization?
Jacob Slowik: Sure, great question. It is a fundamental point that we make in the book. Business niche specialization for us is not only legal skill or legal transaction or legal matter or even industry level specialization, for us, this is a particular operation or type of business that operates within an industry, so you are kind of going another granular level down from industry and particularly our example is obviously in healthcare.
Now, there are a lot of attorneys who market themselves as healthcare attorneys, but even within healthcare, obviously there are many, many different types of providers or pharmaceutical companies, there are hospitals, there are private insurance companies, so we focus on medical laboratories. Now, that’s a very, very small niche, you can go even smaller with toxicology laboratories.
So there is not a one-size-fits-all I guess definition of business niche; they can look different, but I think the important thing is to recognize that this is — this goes another level of specificity beyond just industry specialization.
Christopher T. Anderson: Right, yeah, so the industry would be healthcare lawyer and business niche is going down that one level to say laboratory, medical laboratory, healthcare laboratory.
Jacob Slowik: Right.
Christopher T. Anderson: And then at that level of laboratory now, do you do everything for these businesses or is what you do for them also specialized?
Jacob Slowik: That’s a great question again and the idea is we try to make ourselves as much as possible a generalist for that particular business niche.
Christopher T. Anderson: Got it.
Jacob Slowik: So in other words, we want to set up their business, maintain their corporate formalities, we want to do commercial contracts, the day-to-day stuff, employment matters, heaven forbid, if they get involved in any litigation, we like to handle that, as well as a kind of thread running through all of this that enables our success as regulation as well, and that’s a big part of why this particular niche was good for us.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, okay, so you drill down to a business niche, but then you try to serve as many purposes as you can and I imagine there are some that you might partner up or co-counsel with when it requires an outside area of expertise?
Jacob Slowik: Yes, we have partnered up and created relationships with other counsel depending on the nature of the matter, specifically tax I think, and there has been one criminal matter that we have worked with a criminal law firm before, but those types of things, they happen, and it’s good.
But again, it goes back to this idea that if you are the CEO of a medical laboratory and you have got two potential lawyers you are considering, one lawyer is a healthcare lawyer who has never represented a laboratory before and then the other lawyer is a laboratory lawyer; the laboratory lawyer has a much stronger hand in weighing that business.
Christopher T. Anderson: Absolutely. Great. I am talking with Jacob Slowik here now about ‘Small Law; Big Success: How to Use Business Niche Specialization to Grow a Multi-Million Dollar Law Practice’, and we have been talking so far about what business niche specialization is. We are going to hear from our sponsors here for a moment and when we come back I am going to ask Jake to now take that concept in and talk a little bit about how that increases the likelihood of success for a law firm to go into that business niche and specifically about marketing sales and systems, et cetera, but first a word from our sponsors.
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Christopher T. Anderson: And welcome back to The Un-Billable Hour. We are talking with Jake Slowik on building a law firm business using business niche specialization.
We finished talking about what that is, so now I wanted to ask you Jake, obviously you did it and you have built a successful law firm based on a business niche that you specialized in, but what about that do you believe is replicable? What do you believe is the lesson to be learned by some other law firms that it increases their likelihood of success?
Jacob Slowik: Great question and this is probably the most significant content that we put in the book, ‘Small Law; Big Success’, the characteristics of a business niche that we believe increase the likelihood that you will be able to create a successful law firm focusing on that business niche. And again, we have kind of distilled these characteristics from our own experience and have looked elsewhere to other examples of niches.
So first characteristic of a business niche that we have pinpointed as indicative of future success is that it is a growing niche and that seems to be self-evident. You want an industry where there are new participants joining, because obviously you want to grow your firm and increase your client roster, so it’s important to focus on an industry we think that is growing.
Secondly, not only is it growing, but participants are profitable. Businesses that make profits are more likely to be able to pay legal bills, so it was important for us to seek out businesses that were already profitable. This was not more of a hypothetical potential future business. A lot of folks, they are interested in niche — business niches, they like to focus on startups, and startups are great, and a lot of the companies we work with were startups, but the runway from breaking ground on a laboratory or signing a lease on a laboratory and actually generating revenue and profitability at the time that we were operating was somewhat less than a year.
So it was not a sense that we were hoping these businesses would take off; we had examples of businesses that had taken off and they were profitable and so that is one factor that we liked.
Third factor, we like to call it, the industry has a robust middle class, so to illustrate that — and what we mean by that is that there are midsized companies that have profits, that are profitable, that have sophisticated legal needs to support you targeting them for providing legal services.
If an industry is dominated by well capitalized VC backed companies to the tune of billions of dollars for research and development, that may be fine for a very — a massive law firm, if you are a partner in a massive law firm that has the resources to marshal that could be fine. But again, I think our approach was small, lean legal provider.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, you are saying like stay away from car manufacturers, major airlines, probably not — not a good way to go.
Jacob Slowik: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, the last one is the body of law; we want it to be both complex and evolving. So especially in healthcare we have got a lot of federal laws and regulations, it’s a thicket that must be navigated. Whenever you are trying to do something innovative in healthcare, you have got to kind of navigate this very robust regulatory body of law and it is evolving.
Congress passed a few laws that really impacted the way that laboratories have operated even within the last few years, and that’s important, especially if you are starting in a niche. For us we wanted to go from novice to expert quickly and when you have a complicated evolving body of law, you can do that, you can get a jump on the research and wade through these complex legal issues in real time with even more established competitive law firms in the same industry.
Christopher T. Anderson: Exactly, yeah, because they are chasing you too, and then also the fact that it’s complex and evolving, from a business, from a value proposition it also means that the lawyer, you guys, who is spending the time getting to know that law, keeping up with it, making sure they are up to date is providing a lot of value for your clients, where there is a stable body of law that once you know it, you know it, it’s not as valuable to them.
So you’ve just got this great value proposition with a good — the middle class thing with a good number of businesses that can take advantage of it, profitable that can pay you and then growing so that you kind of — this kind of makes me think of like a blue ocean strategy that there’s plenty of opportunity for you, you’re not battling it out with other players who are trying to go after the same customers, with the same product, but you’re rather in a growing field where you’re establishing a new market. That’s really cool stuff.
So let me ask you, when you take these four factors and if other law firms are looking at this — I guess I’ve got two questions. The first one I’m going to say is, how does this affect your ability to get new clients, with the fact that you are really niche down into this business, niche specialization, does this impact? Does this have a positive effect on your marketing and sales?
Jacob Slowik: Absolutely. The marketing is hyper-focused on almost identical competitors to your existing clients. We will say — I can’t tell you how many times we had a client ask us, I just read about this lawsuit or I just read about this new regulation that passed in this State. Can you do some research and tell me how it affects my business? And we do that oftentimes as a professional courtesy because that work product can then be used in a newsletter or pitch to another business who is operating in the same space and say, hey, take note, we haven’t worked with you — business X or laboratory X before but we just recently did some research which we think may significantly impact your operations.
Here’s our research, let us know if you would like to discuss more about how this may affect you or things that you can do to get in compliance with these regulations and so from a marketing standpoint, it enables you to have value already to offer rather than saying, hey, we’re a really good law firm, you should consider us next time you need something. We go with something valuable in hand to demonstrate our ability for future value but already we’re showing how we can be useful to that point.
Christopher T. Anderson: And you’re able to give them a taste of real value as part of your marketing that they learn even just talking to you has already been valuable to them.
Jacob Slowik: Exactly.
Christopher T. Anderson: Well, we are talking with Jake Slowik. We are going to take a break here and hear from our sponsors. We have been talking about niche specialization business, niche specialization to be specific, and how it’s worked for Jake and how it can work for other law firms as well.
Jake, when we come back from the break, I’m going to ask you about sustainability. First of all you spent a good amount of time in the book talking about sustainability, what it looks like for your law firm, and again, the lessons that others can take away from that, and then I’d like to talk a little bit about some ethics and then a couple of other things, but first I will hear from our sponsors and then we’ll be back in just a few.
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Christopher T. Anderson: And welcome back again. We are talking with Jake Slowik and we have been talking about building his multimillion dollar law firm that by the time he and his partner were 30 years old, through focusing on business niche specialization and during the first part of the show we were talking about what that is, what business niche specialization is and then a little bit more about how that applies to other law firms and how it makes marketing and sales easier and how it really increases the likelihood of success for those firms.
So now, Jake, I’d like to turn our attention a little bit to your chapter, you spent a good amount of time talking about sustainability and I wanted to ask you, what lessons in the growth of your business have you taken and how does business niche specialization particularly feed into this concept of sustainability?
Jacob Slowik: Well, sure, like you said, we did devote a significant chapter of our book to sustainability because frankly it was a very important lesson that we learned along the way, I kind of like to tell the — this anecdotes 00:25:14 about our first year, year plus of operations.
We are basically going at the pace of an overworked senior associate at any big law firm. I don’t think we have taken a day off in several months.
Christopher T. Anderson: Sure.
Jacob Slowik: We were working 9 a.m. to midnight almost every day. We were living together at the time. So it was pretty much 24/7 work and we really, we kind of woke up one day — it was a little bit after New Year’s and we kind of had a heart-to-heart conversation where we said, this is not good for our health. Let alone, good for the health of the firm and we found ourselves — the strategy had worked, we had grown a significant book of business within our niche and a function of that was matters were coming in and we found ourselves needing to hire people and all the expertise was kind of located in our brains and we hadn’t really done a lot of focus on what happens if one of us goes down for a week or — we want to take a vacation having forbid, what happens.
So we really kind of took a little bit of time a few days to kind of create this sustainability plan, nothing too complicated or formulaic but that the idea is I looked up the definition of sustainability, it’s sort of like how does this organism thrive in changing environments and really a lot of it has to do with the health of the law firm and thinking in terms of especially within a niche if you or your partner are the one or two go-to guys for the CEOs of dozen or two dozen, mid-sized high revenue companies. They don’t call every hour but they do call at least one or two times a week and you’ve got to be ready to provide pretty sophisticated legal analysis.
So I think the lesson learned is that we have to sit down and think about this proactively, not only from the perspective of how are we handling each matter but how are we building the institutional capacity to serve these clients so that we are not overly dependent on any one person.
Christopher T. Anderson: Right, yeah, so in fact as you scale and as you grow you can even at some point the way you were going you were not going to be able to maintain the level of quality because you weren’t going to be as available.
Jacob Slowik: Exactly. So a big part of that was staffing and we talked about staffing in the book and how it’s a little bit different for business niche specialization and that you want somebody who’s flexible, who’s actually interested in the business niche you’ve taken.
Christopher T. Anderson: Right.
Jacob Slowik: I don’t think a lot of people go into law school hoping to become medical laboratory lawyers but if they have some medical interest or they just find the —
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah.
Jacob Slowik: — they have the niche but fascinating that is kind of — that can go further than maybe a litigation superstar who has no clue about how laboratory works or no curiosity necessarily.
Christopher T. Anderson: So how did you like you said you didn’t get overly formulaic, didn’t make it too complicated but how did you record what you needed to record to maintain the sustainability? Like what’s that look like in your business?
Jacob Slowik: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s sort of just a informal memo-type document that we say what are the — they memorialize the issues that we think are related to sustainability so you sit down and say, okay, what is sustainability for this law firm, not just any law firm, this law firm in particular, and that involves the discussion of specific clients, specific matters.
Obviously there’s a discussion of cash flows and expenses and you kind of pressure test, you kind of poke the tires so to speak. You play a game of what if, what if Yussuf had to go on vacation for two weeks right now. Who is going to do what? What if big client X who represents X percentage of our revenue disappears tomorrow? Those kind of questions and you kind of come up with the best answer you can of knowing that none of these scenarios necessarily are going to happen and you cannot game out every single thing, but you kind of start in responding to these scenarios, we kind of sort of developed — well, it would be good to have this business.
It would be good to have a memo to file with all of the research on these issues, those issues, that issue so that if somebody needs to get caught up to speed they’re not forced to just go to your — if you have your appendix out, they don’t have to go to hospitals bedside to get caught up to speed on the matter.
Christopher T. Anderson: Cool. So as we come up towards the end of the show what I wanted to ask you about because you do write about this and I think it’s something that we should talk about with our listeners is when we boil down, when we get down to this business niche specialization, I think it brings up some ethical considerations that you bump into more frequently than others might.
So would you just discuss like what ethical considerations you think if someone is considering, hey, maybe this business niche specialization is for me, what should they be thinking about, what should they be paying attention to?
Jacob Slowik: Great question. And I think the number one consideration when you decide to focus on any niche or specifically a business niche is you’re usually playing in a small playground or a small pool. If your clients — especially if you get very specific with your niche, you’re dealing with clients who know each other very well.
Some of them don’t like each other, they’re competitive, some like each other now but maybe they don’t like each other in two or three years, you’ve got this joint venture, you get two different clients come to you and say, hey, we want to work together, can you be both of our lawyers?
So conflict of interest comes up very quickly. Obviously, number one, if you want to preserve client confidentiality at all costs, sometimes the clients have already waived that by coming to you jointly, but it takes a very, very calculated proactive approach to conflicts of interest when it comes to operating in a business niche, and I’m talking not only competitors but service providers as well.
In the medical field, medical billing companies are an integral part of most mid-size to large providers business models and you can become friendly with service providers and that can be a great marketing tool and way to meet other potential clients.
But you also have to evaluate that particular service provider’s reputation, are they getting in disputes with other people, are they getting disputes with my clients? The relationship dynamics can change very quickly when somebody comes to you and says, hey, I want to sue this company and you in the back of your mind you’re very good friends with that company, you have been connected to other clients through the company.
So, again, the approach that we take is very, very proactive from the start and it also involves a constant re-evaluation. Okay, where this client’s business is going, do we foresee potential conflicts down the road, and it’s always much better to call up a client and say, hey, you’re exploring this potential business opportunity and you’ve mentioned these particular players.
I just want to let you know if you do decide to partner up with this person, we may have a potential conflict of interest issue or these things are — it’s always better not to surprise clients with ethical things. And it also sends a very good marketing signal that you are very, very concerned and focused on avoiding any issues and obviously following the rules that are applicable to get your law firm. It does send a signal that you care about this stuff and you are practicing or operating with integrity.
Christopher T. Anderson: And that you care about the clients —
Jacob Slowik: Absolutely.
Christopher T. Anderson: — which is great, yeah. All right, so the last question I want to exit with is, I think this topic is intriguing and a lot of law firms are kind of looking for their formula to achieve what you’ve achieved that have been stuck and they’ve heard people talk about the niches, but now, they’ve listened to this or they’re listening to this and they see this example of how really great a business specialist, our business niche specialization worked for you.
Is this for everybody? In closing, what would you advise law firm owners that are listening to this as to whether or not this is the right direction for them?
Jacob Slowik: Sure, it’s a great question I think that — and we are very clear in the book that it may not be for everybody. Our specific focus on business niche specialization requires that you have a comfort with sort of attacking different areas and different matters and transactions and learning.
So if you’re not the type of person to pick up — if you get a client that signs up in an industry where you’ve never practiced in, if you’re not inclined to pick up every book you can and do a Google search and research every case you can that has happened that potentially may affect that industry and get up to speed as quickly as possible, then it may not be for you.
Again, there’s still some risk involved from a business perspective. You’re going out there and you’re saying, you’re hanging your shingles saying I’m in this niche, this is who I am I’m specializing in this. Now, there’s always a risk that it doesn’t work out. So if you have significant obligations that are going to limit your ability to ride out a few months, lean months here and there, it may not be for you and that’s obviously a consideration that every attorney has to make on their own, giving their own circumstances.
Yussuf and I were young, we didn’t really have anything in a way of familial obligations, not married, no kids. I didn’t have a mortgage. So we could kind of be patient and invest upfront in the learning to get us caught up to speed to go from novice to expert, knowing that we weren’t going to have to pay salaries, pay rent and pay overhead for a huge operation.
Christopher T. Anderson: Yeah, well, you know what, you’re still young my friend and a great job so far. It’s pretty awesome stuff.
Jacob Slowik: Thank you. Thank you.
Christopher T. Anderson: Jacob, thanks so much for being on here. This wraps up this edition of The Un-Billable Hour, the Law Business Advisory Podcast. Our guest today has been Jake Slowik and he’s again the author along with his partner of Small Law; Big Success: How to Use Business Niche Specialization to Grow a Multi-Million Dollar Law Practice.
Jake, this always goes by so fast. If people want to learn more about you or send you a question, do you have a website or a Twitter handle, Facebook, email, anything you’d like to share with the listeners about how they can get in touch more with you?
Jacob Slowik: Sure. The website is josephaleem.com. My Twitter is @JakeSlowik and if you just Google Small Law; Big Success, look for sale on Amazon and at Edward Elgar website.
Christopher T. Anderson: Thanks again so much. This is Christopher Anderson. I look forward to seeing —
Jacob Slowik: Thank you.
Christopher T. Anderson: Oh, you’re very welcome. I look forward to seeing you next month with another great guest as we learn more about topics that help us build the law firm business that works for you.
Remember, you can subscribe to all the editions of this podcast at legaltalknetwork.com or on iTunes. Thanks for joining us, we will see you again soon.
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