The subject of administrative law may conjure an image of cramped government offices with stuffy lawyers wrestling over legal nuances and then arguing endlessly with local agencies about their action or inaction.
The reality is that administrative law stretches far beyond the confines of a stereotypical budget local bureaucracy and into nearly every corner of the legal profession. How it may enhance an existing practice is best demonstrated by an illustration.
Let’s assume a personal injury attorney successfully negotiates a settlement for an elderly client who was hurt in a car accident. The client then asks about taking retirement because the injury is keeping her from working. This lawyer will likely hand off a card of a colleague that handles social security disability insurance claims and wish her all the best.
The reasoning is simple: unfamiliarity.
These examples abound. A client can ostensibly need assistance before appearing in front of administrative law judges at the office of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Medicaid, and Worker’s Compensation, the Federal Trade Commission, tax boards, among several other federal or state administrative agencies. The list could go on far longer than any of us would care to read.
How Can Understanding Administrative Law Help Expand a Practice?
At the risk of advocating for less specialists and a more boutique approach to solo, small, and midsized law firms, it’s no secret that the legal profession is rapidly changing. Some states have provisional rules permitting virtual law practices to accommodate evolution, others are attempting to adapt existing discovery rules to better facilitate e-discovery, some are formulating referral services to accommodate fees suitable for a growing middle class, and nearly every lawyer across the country is certainly experiencing some type of shift in how they practice as a result.
As it stands, social security, workers’ compensation, immigration, family law, personal injury, trusts and estate, business and tax, and even criminal defense lawyers will simply refer their business around to other local—potentially overburdened—practices when a collateral issue appears in a client’s case. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this model, lawyers who pigeonhole their practice into strictly adversarial arenas are missing several opportunities to not only assist their clients, who already know and trust their lawyer, but broaden their practice as well.
While an established lawyer may scoff at a suggestion of learning a new field of law, venturing into a field of administrative law may not be as difficult as adding another demanding adversarial focus area. This is not to imply that administrative law is not itself difficult or unique, but simply that it may be more of a natural next step than many lawyers realize. For example, many solo practitioners already do focus on more than one area, let’s say, family law and criminal law. Many of the clients of that law office will certainly face administrative issues that their lawyer could learn to handle (perhaps with the exception of increasingly complex immigration matters), both rounding out the lawyer’s practice and meeting their client’s needs.
Naturally, such expansion would not occur overnight; several hours of CLE and consulting or associating with other local counsel would likely be in order before a lawyer feels competent. Regardless, for lawyers who are feeling a lull in business or a lack thereof, expanding their reach is one simple way to reinvigorate or support a practice.
Additionally, depending on the locale, it may not be viewed as cutting into the bottom end of another lawyer’s practice, but simply helping to realize or fulfill an unmet demand. Likewise, it’s not uncommon for a lay person to be simply put off by the prospect of meeting a new lawyer, paying new fees, and dealing with a new set of office protocol and communication methods that they simply neglect to handle the matter properly altogether.
The First Step Is the Hardest
Before putting a client in a position of being sent down the road, an attorney should consider letting their client know that they are considering expanding their practice into whichever area, and can offer to look into the viability of their questions pro bono or at a discounted rate. Once competent, or after associating (which a client may still perceive as preferable over having to hunt down a new lawyer altogether), the lawyer can advise the client or move the case forward from there.