Washington Lawyer Feature on K&M: Niching Down to Build Up
This month, we are proud to be featured in Washington Lawyer Magazine.
After renting shared workspace at WeWork Apollo near the H Street Northeast corridor in Washington, D.C., Meredith Kinner and John McGowan recently moved their practice into a nearby rowhouse on Capitol Hill. But even the space at WeWork was an upgrade from where the two attorneys first joined forces in 2015 to form Kinner & McGowan, PLLC, a small firm that specializes in cannabis law.
Working out of their homes at night and doing “grunt attorney work” during the day, Kinner and McGowan launched their firm with just one client. “We were getting hired as independent contractors, reviewing documents and working on projects at Big Law firms during the day,” McGowan recalls. “It was good work while looking for a job.”
Except the coveted job never arrived. “We both graduated at the worst possible time,” says Kinner, who earned her JD from the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law in 2010. McGowan graduated from New England Law Boston the same year. “Big firms weren’t hiring. People who would have gone to big firms were going to nonprofits, which was where I wanted to go. Government agencies were cutting back on spending, and judges weren’t hiring. It was just a really bad time to graduate from law school,” Kinner says.
Indeed, the 2008 recession had a “monstrous impact” on the legal profession, says Dan Mills, assistant director of the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service (PMAS). “I started getting calls from lawyers who had just gotten laid off by their firms. They were usually young associates at firms with no lateral move opportunities. And no other firms were hiring,” Mills says.
TAKING THE LEAP
While studying for the bar exam, Kinner and McGowan worked at the same restaurant. They kept in touch after passing the bar, commiserating about the dire legal job market. Eventually, Kinner began practicing as a solo lawyer focused on litigation; McGowan’s interests leaned toward transactional law. However, both shared a fascination with cannabis law — they just didn’t know how to get into that legal space at the time. The legalized cannabis industry was still in its infancy in Washington, D.C., in 2013 when the city implemented its medical marijuana program. The following year, Maryland legalized medical cannabis.
Soon enough, a friend of McGowan’s who worked as an associate at a large Colorado law firm specializing in cannabis law reached out to him for legal assistance on behalf of Maryland-based clients. McGowan and Kinner, both licensed in Maryland, took a chance.
“We learned [cannabis law] from the big boys,” McGowan says. “We cocounseled with a big firm and worked on an application for a license. That’s what got our foot in the door.”
Cannabis law falls under the “general” practice area category under which 261 D.C. Bar members in Washington, D.C., have listed themselves as practitioners as of February 2019. Of the Bar’s 169,403 members, almost 5 percent — 7,152 members — identify as “sole practitioners.”
McGowan says there are only a handful of lawyers in the Washington, D.C., area who specialize in cannabis law, mainly because the industry is still relatively new and most Big Law firms with federal clients are leery of touching it. Despite laws in the District and several other states legalizing cannabis possession for medical and some recreational use, possession and distribution of marijuana is still a federal crime. There are other stigmas attached to the cannabis world as well.
“Some people still think we sell marijuana or we represent people like Cheech and Chong,” Kinner says. “We are attorneys who ensure that legal businesses are able to comply with state governments. It’s true that generally our clients are more relaxed. They are not coming to us wearing suits. But all of our business clients are professional people.”
Most of Kinner and McGowan’s clients are dispensaries, cultivation facilities, and physicians who prescribe medical marijuana to their patients. Their firm has also written legal letters to landlords on behalf of tenants who are medical marijuana patients. “Cannabis law can touch upon banking, housing, employment, custody, and, of course, criminal matters,” McGowan says.
Today, Kinner and McGowan count themselves among the few cannabis law experts in the greater Washington, D.C., area. “No matter what success we have, we will be able to say that we are the most successful [cannabis law] litigators in the city,” McGowan says. “There are firms here in D.C. that have been around for about 100 years. But cannabis law? Hardly anyone has been doing it.”
DRILLING DOWN THE MARKET
Mills of the PMAS says most of the small practice lawyers he deals with are in traditionally consumer-based practices, where their clients usually have never interacted with a lawyer before. One explanation is that many niche practices such as cybersecurity, cryptocurrency, and gaming germinate inside well-established Big Law practice areas like intellectual property and international trade.
Justin Zelikovitz was another young attorney faced with a dismal job market when he graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2008. He worked as a summer associate at a Big Law firm but did not get an offer. “Up until then, it was very rare for that to happen,” Zelikovitz says. “So I scrambled.”
Zelikovitz landed a job at Maryland Legal Aid, where he litigated employment cases. After four years, he worked for the D.C. Employment Justice Center for a year before starting his own practice.
Zelikovitz realized that Big Law firms seldom handle cases involving wage law violations against low-income people; nonprofit legal organizations like the D.C. Employment Justice Center usually take on those cases. But Zelikovitz wanted to employ for-profit business strategies to better serve his clients. “In the forprofit context, we can get more money for the client and more money for us,” he says. “We just need to think like a for-profit law firm.”
Zelikovitz joined the ranks of attorneys who have taken the solo route, launching his firm DCWageLaw in 2013 with a capital investment of $500. For the first eight months, he met clients at Starbucks or in his dining room.
“All you really need is your mind, internet access, and a laptop,” he says. “I was fortunate to have a boyfriend at the time who worked in Big Law. I wasn’t worrying too much about living expenses because we owned our home together.”
Zelikovitz built his firm one client at a time, eventually moving his practice to an office in Chinatown. He now rents the entire building and has a staff of three that includes an attorney, a paralegal, and an administrative assistant. Although many small firm attorneys work remotely or in shared workspaces such as WeWork, Zelikovitz argues that there are certain cultural expectations of lawyers who work in his field. “Ultimately, this is a retail kind of law practice. We have clients who come to our offices,” he says.
Focusing on a niche market has given him an advantage, Zelikovitz says. Most of DCWageLaw’s clients work in the restaurant, construction, landscaping, janitorial, or car wash business. “As I get more established and our website gets snazzier, we are starting to see more white-collar cases,” Zelikovitz says. “I’ve represented an investment banker, a computer programmer, and a highly compensated sales executive.”
Like Kinner and McGowan, Zelikovitz discovered that focusing on a specific aspect of law allows him to be an expert in a niche with few competitors. “Increasingly, the cases in our briefs are my cases from the past,” he says. “It’s nice having that small area because you don’t have to [compete] as hard.”
Mills agrees that in places like Washington, D.C., the more narrowly focused an attorney’s practice is, the easier it is for him or her to become an expert. “Prospective clients have come to expect a specialist, particularly in big urban areas,” he explains. “They really want a high-conflict child custody divorce lawyer as opposed to just a family lawyer. They want someone who is an expert in solving a particular [legal] situation. Sometimes being narrowly focused can be a challenging proposition for lawyers because they think their net will be wider if they have three or four different practice areas. That might have been true back in the day; it might still be true in rural areas. But it’s not true here or in other big metropolitan areas.”
Not all solo or small firm attorneys start their own businesses because they can’t find work at a Big Law firm. Some, like Allen Orr, leave large firms on their own accord. Before launching Orr Immigration Law Firm P.C. in 2010, Orr worked at Baker McKenzie as an immigration lawyer specializing in business compliance. “I decided to leave because of the overhead, which was keeping me from becoming partner,” Orr says. “It’s hard to do a niche practice at a large firm unless it generates huge fees that are compatible with the other components of the firm. For instance, at Baker McKenzie a tax attorney could bill $800 to $1,000 an hour for a case, whereas that would not be a sustainable fee in immigration law.”
Because of his long tenure at Baker McKenzie, Orr had stronger financial footing and more client prospects than others when he went solo. He also wisely used resources available through the D.C. Bar’s PMAS, which holds free courses and seminars for Bar members on marketing, managing bank accounts, and legal ethics.
When Orr started his practice, he had offices in both Washington, D.C., and New York. The former was in a suite shared with other attorneys; the latter was a brick-and-mortar office that he rented for three years. “I literally had exactly two clients walk into that office. So, it wasn’t a good use of money,” Orr says. “In the type of work that I do, I’m mostly onsite going through clients’ documents.”
Ava Benach is also an immigration lawyer who worked in Big Law before co-launching her firm, Benach Collopy LLP, in 2012. Prior to that she was at Maggio + Kattar for seven years, and then at Duane Morris LLP for three.
Benach, who has practiced immigration law her entire career, dreamed of starting a firm that better represented her ideals. “I wanted to create a place that was consistent with my character, which is warm, generous, kind, creative, and thoughtful,” she says.
Those traits serve her well in immigration law. “I handle cases in which things have gone wrong, in which people have made mistakes or the government has made mistakes — something that can’t just be on the standard conveyor belt of immigration law. Most of my cases involve problematic issues in deportation proceedings and [immigration] applications such as green cards and citizenship. I deal with asylum and advise people of the consequences of pleas in criminal proceedings. Those are some of my niche areas.”
DEVELOPING BUSINESS SENSE
As solo and niche practices continue to grow, so does the need for attorneys to master their entrepreneurial skills, one of the biggest hurdles for many. Mills says the common personality traits of lawyers such as being very independent, urgent about their work, cerebral, and skeptical don’t translate well in the business world. “These personality traits make us great at analyzing and solving our clients’ problems,” Mills explains.
“To start a law firm, you want to use those personality traits that are baked in, but you also need to set those traits aside when you start thinking about starting and growing a business. If you start applying those traits to the business side of running a law firm, you will kill it because you will overthink it.” The good news is that some law schools are now teaching students how to be entrepreneurs, Mills says.
When it comes to executing cost-effective marketing, Ben Glass, a Virginiabased personal injury lawyer who started Great Legal Marketing, LLC in 2005, advises against trying to compete dollar-for-dollar for print, radio, television, and digital advertisement with Big Law firms. Instead, he suggests creating information-based marketing pamphlets, books, and downloads that touch upon various aspects of attorneys’ legal expertise. That way they can better attract potential clients still mulling over whether they need a lawyer.
Glass also recommends creating a robust pool of referrals. “If you have 1,000 people who know, like, and trust you, there’s no need to advertise at all,” he argues. “Seventy percent of revenue at mature firms comes from people they’ve already represented or who have contacted them from their newsletter or professional referrals. Only 30 percent comes from the cold calls or people who happened upon some website.”
In addition to honing their marketing skills, Mills encourages lawyers to develop more empathy. “Lawyers tend not to be very empathetic,” he says. “But the more empathy you can bring to your relationships with your clients, the better they are going to be. And the business benefit from that is learning enormous [amounts of] information about how your clients process the problems that they ultimately need you to solve. The more you know about how they dealt with that problem, the better your marketing messages are going to be.”
Kinner and McGowan have certainly embraced much of the entrepreneurial wisdom that Glass and Mills espouse. They are developing seminars geared toward the geriatric community and are trying to collaborate with various D.C.-based wellness groups to talk about medical marijuana in assistedliving facilities. They also hope to hire associates. And while they are considering other opportunities such as business consulting and tax law, they’re keeping their eyes on the prize. “I can see our firm growing, but within the cannabis space,” McGowan says. “If we keep having ongoing relationships with cannabis clients, I don’t see how we could really have time to do other stuff.”