Building a Niche Through Pre-Client Advocacy: Lessons from Portland's Bicycle Lawyers

By Steve Pappert, Solo & Contract Attorney & YLS Futures Committee member

If you want to build a niche, I offer this lesson I learned from two of Portland's top bicycle lawyers, Mark Ginsberg and Ray Thomas: advocate for your niche before they ever become your clients and when they need an advocate they will realize they already have one.

Ginsberg's bicycle advocacy started before he ever attended law school and was a motivating factor in his enrollment. While at Lewis & Clark, he successfully advocated for bike parking. His efforts continue in traffic court, where he has defended cyclists ticketed for operating with rear skid braking as opposed to the arguably required hand brakes. After limited success in court, in 2007 Ginsberg successfully lobbied the legislature to change the law. He did not get the exact statute he wanted, but what he did get is a statute that improved and clarified the law for his niche. More recently, Ginsberg advocated for the position that a bike lane extends through the intersection regardless of paint. Individually, taking such cases may not make economic sense, but it does when you realize Ginsberg is not just representing an individual; he is advocating for his niche.

Thomas regularly hosts informational clinics on traffic law for cyclists. His Web site is an archive of articles compiled over years on all things related to bicycling and the law. A recent article on bicycle passing laws is a response to a conflict in the West Hills between cyclists and a motorist. The motorist was so upset by the article he filed a bar complaint, claiming Thomas was misleading the public about the law. The complaint was denied and Thomas remains undaunted. In his words, cyclists must "Make up with knowledge, what we lack in size and speed." The conflict did not create a cause of action, but it created an opportunity to educate his niche.

Own Your Code
Ginsberg is not just representing a member of his niche when he takes their case in traffic court, he is protecting his code, as today's ticket could be tomorrow's tort defense. Each year these lawyers promote their code by taking their cases back to the Legislature to advocate for the moderate but continuous change that helps protect the safety and legal rights of their future clients. Your code is the tool you use to advocate for your niche, take an ownership interest in it.

Disseminate Your Code
Thomas, a self-described pamphleteer, has a full array of vehicles to deliver his code to his niche. His book, Pedal Power: A Legal Guide for Oregon Bicyclists, is in its sixth edition. It is an easy to carry, annotated copy of every Oregon law or regulation affecting bicyclists. Thomas's Action Pamphlet #1 is a do-it-yourself guide to Oregonís quirky law allowing citizens to initiate proceedings against road users for vehicle violations. His Web site has accounts of people who have used the pamphlet, including the story of a cyclist who started a proceeding after being hit by a driverís side view mirror. In his account, after returning home, he "recalled attending a workshop sponsored by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance where attorney Ray Thomas spoke about cyclists' rights and how a citizen can have a motorist cited. I called Ray Thomas the next day and he encouraged me to follow the process and gave me important advice about the likely offense that the motorist could be cited for..."

The cyclist was not seriously injured, and not in need of Thomas' representation, but by taking a minute and having a pamphlet, Thomas empowered a member of his niche. The driver was cited and a fine was ultimately imposed. Empowerment is a feeling and, as Maya Angelou teaches, people will never forget how you make them feel.

Leave the Mad Men in the Sixties
You do not need a comprehensive marketing plan or optimized web search-ability. As a young attorney you cannot afford it even if it is worth it. Go out and do what you really want to do, advocate. Your advocacy is better than any advertisement, or as Ginsberg puts it, "It's all the work you have already done that keeps you a leader."

It is worth noting that this article has not addressed how these two lawyers make a living. The bulk of their income comes from litigating personal injury cases. They are plaintiff's trial attorneys. Judging from their passion and expertise, I am sure they have impressive verdicts and results they could advertise to potential clients, but they do not seem to, and I doubt their clients ever ask. Their clients know they are represented before the injury even occurs.