Mike Fancher of Seattle Divorce Services: “Find a niche you can stand out in”

Find a niche you can stand out in. Too many lawyers make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people. They think that if they practice family law, criminal law, estate planning, and maybe a little business law, they will have enough clients to get by. But a lawyer who practices in […]

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Find a niche you can stand out in. Too many lawyers make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people. They think that if they practice family law, criminal law, estate planning, and maybe a little business law, they will have enough clients to get by. But a lawyer who practices in all those areas is more likely to be perceived as a Jack of all trades, master of none. Those who do hire you are doing so for some reason other than thinking you are good at your job, and will not have much respect for you. Those people are less likely to follow your advice, or to pay your bills. The end result is you will not be very happy.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Fancher.

Mike received his education from Harvard University, the University of Washington, and Hastings College of the Law. He has practiced family law in the Seattle area since 1988 and founded Seattle Divorce Services in 2000. Despite tendencies towards introversion, Mike enjoys presenting at forums on family law, practice building, and Collaborative Divorce.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

When I was young, I actually thought I wanted to be a minister or theologian. In high school I studied Latin and Hebrew. In college I began to question my religious upbringing, and lacking direction decided to get a teaching certificate to give me time to think about what I wanted to be. Over the course of teaching in a one room schoolhouse for several years, I finally realized (after a discussion over many beers with a good friend) that law might be a good fit for me. Coming out of law school I was very afraid of the idea of appearing in court and thought I would pursue a more transactional type of practice. However, after I passed the bar I worked for a judge in superior court which helped me overcome my fears. I then found a job in a family law firm, and discovered that I liked the close interaction with clients as well as the time in court, and despite my best plans I became a divorce litigator.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

My practice has always been in divorce law. However, I also wanted to find ways to serve my clients better. When I learned about pro se services (assisting low income clients in representing themselves) I added that to my practice options. Later I discovered Collaborative Divorce, a team approach to helping clients resolve their divorce issues without litigation, and jumped into that with both feet. By 2007 I had stopped litigating entirely to focus on alternative dispute resolution, primarily through collaboration. Around 2017 I stopped working directly with clients to focus on managing the firm I had built. Our emphasis in the firm has continued to be on alternative dispute resolution and cooperative litigation.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Drive to improve. As I moved through my career, I never wanted to just keep doing things the same old ways that everyone else did. I looked for innovative ways to better help our clients. As discussed above, this led me to add services that many other family law firms did not offer, especially Collaborative Divorce. As the firm grew, I hired like-minded attorneys, and our firm developed a reputation built around problem solving rather than bull dog litigation.
  2. Listening. I found that the quality my clients appreciated the most was my focus on listening to what they had to say, what they were most concerned about. Too many attorneys focus, even in the first meeting, on telling the client what they are going to do for the client, rather than paying attention to the client’s concerns and goals. To do our best work, we first need to listen carefully. Only then can we plan how to most effectively move forward.
  3. Ability to learn and adapt. When I first started out on my own, I was not very successful because I did not know how to attract clients. I was a good lawyer, but that was not enough. For a while I took a job with a law firm that marketed extensively, and grew rapidly because of it. When I went back on my own, I took with me the lessons I had learned about marketing. Over the years since then I have worked hard to learn more about effective marketing and to apply what I learned. Even there, we had to adapt to changing times. The yellow pages used to be a significant marketing venue, but no more. Radio has declined, while the internet has taken over as the most important place to reach people.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

There are always elements of luck, but more important is how you capitalize on that luck. I was lucky to end up at a firm where I was exposed to new ideas about marketing, but then I had to build on those concepts. I was lucky to come across ideas about alternative ways to serve clients, but I had to take those ideas and run with them.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

I went to a mid-level law school, Hastings in San Francisco. It was good, but not top. In my experience, the primary benefit of going to a top school is getting you in the door for your first job, especially if you are looking for a job in a large law firm. After that, moving to other jobs is much more about the work you have done than the school you went to.

I never worked in a large firm. I worked in several small firms before starting my own firm. I do not think my school had much to do with getting those first jobs, and it certainly did not make a difference when I went out on my own.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

I think I would tell my younger self: do what you do best, not what you think you are supposed to do. I have always regretted that I did not pursue a career in science or computer technology. Science and math were the areas I did best at in school and enjoyed the most, but I was raised to value the helping professions more highly. Even as a lawyer, the work I have enjoyed the most was developing computerized systems for document production, writing programs for time tracking and billing, etc. One of my roles today is being the front line IT person for the office.

If I was talking to my law school self, I would say don’t be afraid. You’ll do fine at whatever you decide you are interested in. Most importantly, focus on building your own practice rather than working for a firm — you will enjoy it much more.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

In my years as a family law litigator, I became very aware of how much damage the adversarial system does to already damaged families. Spouses attack each other in an effort to gain some advantage. The costs of those repeated attacks in terms of emotional well-being is enormous. Beyond the personal pain, the negative effects on other friendships and the ability to co-parent are very high as well. When we can help our clients to resolve their family breakups more peacefully through less adversarial means, we not only spare them a great deal of pain, but we set the stage for them to move forward with their lives more productively.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Frankly, my most exciting project now is getting ready to retire. That does not just mean selecting a retirement date, rather it is a matter of working with the younger attorneys in my office who are going to take over the firm to help them get ready to take on those responsibilities. It also involves working to make the transition as seamless as possible — improving systems to require less oversight, finding people to take over various responsibilities so the attorneys can continue to focus on clients, and teaching people what they need to carry on. The goal is to have them not really notice I am gone.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

As mentioned above, the next step is retirement. I expect to act in an advisory role for a few years, helping the new firm owners continue to learn the ropes, and if they would like me to, I might also work in some remote role, such as managing the marketing efforts. It is possible down the road that I would do some volunteer mediation, but I also might do something complete different like volunteer in a community bicycle project.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

Due to client confidentiality concerns I am not able to share stories about cases, especially for something that could be published where former clients could recognize themselves. In general I would tend to think of my collaborative cases as the most successful, as we helped clients work out peaceful ways of moving forward with their lives rather than fighting it out in court. I did have one client, and have permission to share her story, who went through a collaborative divorce and was so impressed with the process that she subsequently became a collaborative professional herself in the role of child specialist.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I have always preferred to work in an office. If I was working from home, I believe I would be distracted far too easily. I also like being able to pop down the hall to talk informally with others. However, during Covid I did learn to do more work from home, and we set up the tools for all our people to be able to work remotely. But like me, they have tended to prefer coming into the office once that was an option again. I should also say that traditionally family law has worked better being office based because we spend so much time meeting with clients, but again, in the last few years we have pivoted to conducting most meetings over Zoom. We are not yet at the point of being comfortable having clients back in the office even though we are mostly back ourselves.

In terms of the future, I doubt lawyers will ever give up the new tools for remote meetings. Many clients prefer it, and it’s easier for everyone. At the same time, remote meetings can never fully replace the experience of talking face to face, and some clients will continue to prefer meeting in person. Therefore I expect in the future there will be more options offered for communication, and the end result will be a hybrid of old and new.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

Certainly the ways in which we communicate with clients has changed, and where we work from has changed. In the future we will simply have more options — working remotely or not, zooming or not, etc.

The other change has been with the courts. We now do many hearings remotely, and much of our court filing and exchange of paperwork is done online. This has been problematic at times as the court system works the bugs out of the new systems they put in place, and the rules and procedures seem to change almost weekly. Eventually we will get back to more in-person court appearances, but I expect some of the new processes will remain as well. For instance, it might make sense to conduct a trial or major motion hearing in person, but smaller issues such as presenting final orders, or having a motion on a simple issue, might well continue to be done remotely.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

I do not know that the nature of networking has changed, but for the person who wants to use networking as a primary marketing method, they should develop a broader understanding of what that means. Too often we think it means attending gatherings and handing out cards. But real networking is social networking. It is more about developing relationships with the people you interact with every day. It means getting to know your opposing counsels and making friends of them. It means talking about what you do with the people you run into, in a way that makes them think you would be a great referral when someone they know needs legal assistance. Of course, making that kind of impression also means communicating a real passion for what you do.

Networking is just one form of marketing, as I discuss further below. But for people who are good networkers, this can be a terrific way to build their practice. The costs are low, and if you are an extroverted social person, it can come naturally, almost effortlessly. Several attorneys in my office have used this very effectively. Even for an introvert like me, just being friendly, helpful, and open can help build connections. Over time I developed a reputation as someone who was always willing to sit down and talk to new attorneys or other professionals, and it was surprising how often I would be contacted by professionals looking for advice.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

Social media is another marketing approach one can use. Certainly the internet is one of the most important ways of reaching potential clients today, whether that means developing great SEO on a website, or using the more personal social media approach. I do not use social media much in my own life, so I do not use it very much for marketing. On the other hand, if you are a person who naturally spends significant time on social media, then also using it to market your practice only makes sense. While you can certainly use paid ads on social media, you can also just talk about your work in your own posts. The trick is having enough connections that a significant number of people are seeing your posts. If your posts are interesting or amusing enough that people share them, then you can quickly expand your readership. It does takes a certain talent to do it well.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

Being a top lawyer is not just about being good at what you do, it is also about attracting clients so you can stay busy doing that good work. That means that in addition to being a great lawyer, you need to be a great marketer. Being great at both starts with introspection and getting to know more about yourself.

  1. Passion. The first thing is discovering what your legal passions are, and then focusing on doing work around those passions. What part of your work fires you up, gets you talking about what you do, makes you want more? When you care deeply about an area of practice and focus on that, then you will do your best work, and you will enjoy your work the most. When you speak to others about the work you do, that passion will come across and people will respond to your message and want to hire you. If you are doing work you don’t really care about, that will come across as well, and who wants to hire someone who does not really care? I started out as a divorce litigator. I was good at it, but also came to see the harm that litigation often did to my own clients, as well as the rest of their family. Midway through my career I trained in Mediation and Collaborative Divorce. I discovered that through these dispute resolution methods I could help families work though their divorce issues more peacefully and with much less emotional damage. They could develop their own tailored solutions that worked better for both parties as well as their children. When I started doing this dispute resolution work I came to enjoy my practice a great deal more because I felt like I was really helping my clients in a way that litigation did not. This new type of divorce practice excited me and I got much more involved in the wider community. Because of that involvement, I was able to serve on local, state, and international boards supporting Collaborative professionals. It also meant that when someone asked what I did for a living, I did not just mumble “I’m a divorce attorney”, but instead would launch into an enthusiastic description of how people could divorce more peacefully. With that passion for my new work, it was not long before I was able to stop litigating altogether and concentrate on Collaborative Divorce work. My wife said I became a happier person, I liked my clients better, and I enjoyed my work much more.
  2. Find a niche you can stand out in. Too many lawyers make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people. They think that if they practice family law, criminal law, estate planning, and maybe a little business law, they will have enough clients to get by. But a lawyer who practices in all those areas is more likely to be perceived as a Jack of all trades, master of none. Those who do hire you are doing so for some reason other than thinking you are good at your job, and will not have much respect for you. Those people are less likely to follow your advice, or to pay your bills. The end result is you will not be very happy. On the other hand, the more you can narrow down your field to something you really like doing, the more people will perceive you as the expert in that narrow field. That in turn means that when they need a lawyer who does what you do, they will be hoping they can persuade you to work for them, rather than feeling they are doing you a favor by hiring you. That specialization also helps you to stand out from the field. Maybe 50 other lawyers in your area practice estate planning, but if your estate planning practice focuses on families with special needs children, you are not just another face in the crowd. When someone needs you, they need YOU.
  3. Discover which clients are the best fit. No lawyer is a good fit for every client. No client is a good fit for every lawyer. You will work best with clients when the two of you are a good fit for each other. You want to work with the clients that share your values, your style, your goals. The wrong client is like wearing shoes that do not fit, constantly rubbing, causing blisters, cramping your feet. They might be good shoes for someone else, just not for you. In order to attract clients who are a good fit for you, you need to be putting out a clear message about who you are, what makes you special, what you care about. A fake message falls flat, but a message that truly represents you, that comes from your passions and who you are, will resonate with the people who think like you. They will be the clients who are the best fit for you. If what you really care about most is small businesses, if you feel that small businesses are the bedrock of our society, that small businesses need help getting launched properly so they can succeed, then the business clients who are the best fit for you may be business owners just starting out. The things you care about will be the things they care about. A great match!
  4. Find out what type of marketing you do well. People giving marketing advice often have some particular thing they think you should do. You should network, you should write, you should give talks, you should advertise on TV, you should pay for clicks on the internet, or any number of other things that worked for them. The problem is we are all different, so the kind of marketing we are good at will be different as well. One person may be a good social networker, another a great speaker, and a third really enjoys writing. I myself am a strong introvert and a terrible social networker. Put me in a group and I will hide in the corner. I found that I did best with paid advertising through various forms of media such as radio and an SEO driven website. That was more comfortably at arm’s length, and it enabled me to write content, which I like doing. If you choose a form of marketing that you do not do well or do not like doing, then you will tend not to do it. If you chose a method that is something you are more comfortable doing, then you will not have as hard a time getting out and doing it. To work, it has to happen.
  5. Understand emotional marketing. As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational, most decisions are really driven by emotion. We want to feel good, and we buy things because we think those things will make us feel good. Buying food is not just about obtaining fuel for most people, it is about satisfying something. The choice might be based on a desire for comfort (mac and cheese — Yum!), to feed a sweet tooth, to feel like we are getting healthier or losing weight, or a desire for a new experience. Marketing a law practice is similar. You do not attract many clients by telling them about the schools you went to or the awards you have been given. You will have much more success attracting them by letting them know how you are going to help them feel better. Even the person that hires you because you went to Yale Law is really hiring you because they think a Yale Law grad is most likely to solve their problem, which will make them feel better. I let potential clients know I work to help families move peacefully from one family structure to another. I let them know dispute resolution methods can help them avoid painful fighting, and plan for the best possible future. When a new client leaves my office, I want them to already feel that their problem is on the way to a resolution that will work for them. Your message should focus not on you and how great you are, but on the clients’ problems and how you can help solve those problems. A big part of being able to do that is spending much of your time listening to them rather than talking. They need to feel heard to start feeling better, and you need to understand them in order for you to work towards the results they will feel best about.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

As a cyclist and a traveler, several writers who I think would be great fun to have a conversation with are Willie Weir, Joe Kurmaskie, or Bill Bryson. All of them are wonderful storytellers and seem like genuinely nice people. In terms of a more well-known name, Neil deGrasse Tyson would be a wonderful person to spend time talking with. He is passionate about explaining science to non-scientists, appears down to earth, and just seems like a fascinating person. It could not be entirely private, however, as my wife would divorce me if she was not invited along!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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