I love lawyers. I’m a lawyer-loving wealth advisor. Lawyers are my people. I’m often the token non-lawyer in a room.
I’ve been boldly sharing these sentiments and my passion for working with lawyers for about a decade. My lawyer-loving super niche is not a sales pitch or marketing strategy, but it sets me apart in the financial industry.
While I’m always happy to opine on the benefits of committing to a highly specialized growth strategy — and have enjoyed those discussions on podcasts and at industry conferences — it feels a little daunting to share my story of how it all unfolded.
I don’t come from a family of lawyers and never had any dreams of being a lawyer. Nor do I have a special designation that makes me more qualified than other advisors to serve lawyers. I (sadly still!) don’t have a symbiotic relationship with a legal organization that sends me qualified prospective clients.
Instead, my lawyer super niche was born in a sterile conference room after several days of painstakingly analyzing detailed spreadsheets that sliced and diced the demographics of my client list and professional network, relative to the rest of my firm and to the industry at large.
Searching for a real differentiator
At the time, I was the youngest relationship manager at a large independent RIA firm. The firm’s leadership had hired a consultant to help us get more specialized because the traditional methods of client acquisition were no longer as impactful as they had been. Just claiming we were the firm for women in transition and business owners was no longer a differentiator. We also wanted to shift from one-to-one marketing to a specialized growth strategy that would lead to one-to-many opportunities.
For me, a hungry, open-minded wealth advisor with a math background, being tasked with analyzing this client data was one of the greatest professional gifts I had ever been given. It ultimately led me to come to that table with numbers and a business case that supported what I intuitively knew: Lawyers are my people.
How to get started
Dissecting your client base to identify trends and opportunities it is an interesting and enlightening process. I highly recommend taking a deep dive every few years. Below are some easy data points to begin an analysis:
- Client demographics. Age, gender, start date and profession.
- Portfolio size. Assets under management, blended billing rate (the average rate across billing tiers) and annual revenue.
- Source of client acquisition. Client referral, referrals from network (centers of influence), speaking engagements, events attended, website, etc.
- Niche-specific details. Since the majority of our lawyer clients were in private practice versus corporate, public or retired lawyers, we drilled down to identify size of firm (big, small/mid or sole proprietor), type of law (corporate, litigator, intellectual property, trusts and estates, real estate, etc.), and then specific firms.
It can be easy to feel discouraged and lose momentum while doing this exercise, especially if it’s a struggle to get firmwide data for clients with whom you don’t work directly. And, obviously, a typical advisor’s client base is never homogenous or perfectly aligned with a niche strategy.
In my case, as a junior advisor at a large firm that used a team approach, I was delighted to take over long-standing client relationships of all varieties. I also took on referrals from anywhere I could get them. So, in my initial analysis, I was genuinely surprised that my client list was overweighted with more lawyers than any other client type.
In hindsight, I suspect this was primarily because I “click” well with lawyers and so they were easy and obvious clients to transition to me. I share many aspects of their overachieving, driven personalities. I have a thick skin and genuinely appreciate their bluntness. I admire their attention to detail when they follow up with a dozen questions about any contract. And I think I have the right mix of confidence and care in my approach that creates a comfortable space for them to ask basic questions about their finances and help them focus on what’s most important.
Of course, it’s also important that your specialized niche makes good business sense. I have been delighted that relative to our average client data, my lawyers have slightly larger portfolios and save more on an annual basis. They are also statistically younger and more likely to be women. And since a few of my clients are partners at the same law firm, I became intimately familiar with their pay structure, benefits and culture — so efficiency and scale are built into the strategy.
Get curious and really listen
The first year that I stepped into leading my firm’s lawyer super niche, I interviewed 113 experts who shared their insights about what’s most important and influential for lawyers. These experts included lawyers, thought leaders in the legal industry, as well as other advisors who focused on helping lawyers. It was fascinating and fun — but it was also really hard.
In addition to being very time-consuming, I had to muster up big doses of courage, discipline and humility. Throughout it all, I listened to learn. What were their top issues with their finances and in their law practice? Where do they get their news? Who do they respect as thought leaders or great connectors in their industry? Their answers led me to further conversations, endless resources and a better understanding of some of their biggest concerns.
Some issues were more tactical – keeping too much or too little cash, not having a will and estate documents, buying too much insurance, and having an excess of pre-tax retirement assets going into retirement. On the softer side, they often struggle with asking for help and their risk-averse, worst-case-scenario planning can impact their investment strategies.
Special concerns of lawyers approaching retirement
I found that spending becomes a huge planning issue as lawyers approach retirement. Very high earners often haven’t had to think about how much they’re spending because their income is so large. But when retirement comes into focus, they begin to feel unsure and nervous about how much they’ll need to “pay” themselves from their portfolio in retirement. Capital account distributions, cash balance pensions, and 401(k) rollovers become high priority planning items.
On the flip side, lawyers who are disciplined savers can find it difficult to walk away from the big income, even when they are financially independent. There is no good answer for when there is “enough.” They may think, “Well, one more year of work could set up my kids’ kids’ college,” and they put off retirement year after year.
Many lawyers strongly identify with their work. For some, it’s downright scary to think about life after law. Yet mandatory retirement age (often 65, but usually with some flexibility) is a common planning item for attorneys in private practice. When law firms emphasize succession planning and transitioning clients to junior lawyers, some older partners may struggle with losing power and significance.
Most of my lawyer clients in their 50s are also tasked with planning for aging parents. Lawyers are often the family members that everyone looks to for answers and insights (and sometimes to help cover costs). But the reality is that many don’t have the time or expertise to handle these situations.
Respect and empathy are pillars of the relationship
When I began immersing myself with lawyers that first year, I gained clarify and confidence in my strategy to work with them. Learning their language and developing empathy for their unique issues proved most valuable. I respect lawyers for the impact they have in our world and understand how difficult it can be for them to manage their industry’s traditionally dysfunctional relationships with time, money and how to define success.
It’s been almost a decade since my 113 conversations and I wonder whether it could be worthwhile to repeat and refresh those efforts. But a similar phenomenon is happening naturally because my network is filled with lawyers and we consistently have deep conversations about their key issues as life unfolds.
Five years ago, I co-authored a white paper with objective data from 200 women lawyers and subjective commentary from my ongoing interviews and learnings. Two-thirds into this year, I tracked 35 business development meetings, 60% with lawyers. My client base is currently 47% lawyers, with an interesting new addition of a few lawyer couples in the past year.
Let your super niche be your superpower
When I left my previous firm, where I had my “aha” moment and started to explore new career paths, I discovered that my super niche was portable and compelling. I remember sitting in initial meetings with advisory firm leaders whose faces lit up as I explained my evidence-based, super-niche strategy. What feels simply methodical, disciplined, and even obvious to me at times, looks like magic from the outside.
I ultimately chose to join Hemington Wealth Management — the only firm that already had that magic. Its founder, Eileen O’Connor. has changed the financial landscape for breadwinning women , many of whom are fabulous lawyers. She had written numerous studies on the specific issues that these women face. My super niche folded perfectly into her data-driven, subject-matter-expert approach to growth.
Not only is our hyper-specialized approach good for growth, it’s also the best thing for our clients. They appreciate that we speak their language, ask perceptive questions, understand their unique issues, and have access to our vast network of other resources for lawyers.
Just do it
There was nothing magical about me choosing lawyers over another niche. I hope this lack of magic might encourage other advisors to find their own super niche. Look at the data, listen carefully to learn, and then lean into your super niche.
“There was nothing magical about me choosing lawyers over another niche. I hope this lack of magic might encourage other advisors to find their own super niche.”
No matter what niche you select, showing your clients admiration, curiosity, respect, dedication and commitment will help. I know that if I continue to stay curious and listen carefully, I will never stop learning and adapting to be an ideal advisor for my clients.
In future columns for Rethinking65, I will write about some of the specifics of working with clients in the legal profession and ideas for how we can all take great care of our lawyer clients.
Jen Dawson, CFP, is an owner and managing director of Hemington Wealth Management, a boutique wealth management firm for high-net-worth individuals and families, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Jen is on a personal mission to help lawyers turn their professional success into financial freedom. She is also committed to helping women advisors thrive in the wealth management industry as a co-founder of the Women’s Initiative Mentorship Program of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. She can be reached via LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.