A select few Long Island lawyers have embraced specialization with gusto, turning their careers away from the broad practices pursued at most firms.
Instead, these iconoclasts focus on niche clients like steroid users, injured bicycle riders, families of mental health patients, next of kin and pet owners.
Some of these specialists were attracted to their niche by an avocation, such as a Mineola-based lawyer who enjoys bodybuilding. Some are drawn by a sense of correcting injustice, such as a Dix Hills attorney who says she works with "the ultimate underdogs" as she represents animal-care organizations and pet owners.
Whatever the reason, specializing can make business sense.
Of the 7,350 working attorneys counted on Long Island by the state Department of Labor as of 2015's second quarter, most operate in a broad market swath, experts say. Lawyers "usually position themselves as doing all things to all people," said Timothy Corcoran of the New Jersey-based Corcoran Consulting Group, which advises law firms on business strategies.
Corcoran said uncertainty about future income leads most law firms to maintain a "diverse practice portfolio" at least until they gain confidence in the future earnings of a specialty.
But Stephen Seckler, a former Great Neck resident and longtime legal business coach in Boston, said that failing to define a legal practice can be a blunder.
"The biggest mistake lawyers make is they try to be everything to everyone," he said. "No one remembers them for anything."
By contrast, niche lawyers offer a distinctive marketing message that appeals to a specialized community.
Here are profiles of five of Long Island's niche lawyers, and how they staked out their slivers of the legal market.
Big wheel in bicycle litigation
Daniel Flanzig's initial plan -- to become an FBI agent -- was foiled by a 1994 hiring freeze when he finished law school at City University of New York. That led the Melville native to follow in the path of his father, Sheldon Flanzig, and pursue personal injury law.
A longtime recreational bicyclist, Flanzig, 46, knew firsthand of the tension between riders and motorists in the New York City area. "I was living in Manhattan [in the early 2000s] and started having my own clients involved in crashes in the five boroughs," he said. "It was friends, acquaintances and people I rode with."
He is now a Sea Cliff resident and partner with his sister, Cathy, at Flanzig and Flanzig LLP in Mineola, where bicycle cases account for about 40 percent of the practice. They launched a dedicated website, newyorkbikelawyer.com, and created a bike-crash app to guide cyclists in collecting information when they are involved in an accident.
"Any personal injury lawyer will handle a bike crash," he said, but they may neglect to ask if the bicyclist was using a GoPro video recorder or the Strava app, which connects with GPS hardware to record detailed data about a ride. "Because I ride, I'm familiar with how crashes occur."
That has resulted in recent six-figure settlements, he said, for a bicyclist who was hurt by a driver who ran a stop sign in Suffolk County and a rider who was "doored" in Manhattan's West Village when a car door swung open in his path, cutting his bicep.
Flanzig said he still makes time to ride a bike despite work and a growing family. "I get to mix my pleasure and work."
Passion for fitness opens legal doors
Even as he pursued a law degree and worked as a prosecutor for former Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, Richard D. Collins kept one foot in the fitness world.
The graduate of Mineola High School, Hofstra University and Hofstra University School of Law also was a competitive bodybuilder and personal trainer. "That was my avocation outside the legal sphere," he said.
Collins left the DA's office, and went into private practice in 1990 doing "bread-and-butter criminal defense." That same year, Congress classified anabolic steroids, which were being used by some athletes to build muscles, as controlled substances and instituted criminal penalties for illicit use. That change opened a door for Collins.
"It just happened organically. All my connections in the bodybuilding world and fitness world began contacting me," said the 56-year-old partner at Mineola-based Collins, McDonald & Gann PC. "Even the possession of a single tablet of steroids became a federal crime if it was outside of a prescription situation."
Collins' clients have included the makers of dietary supplements, and boxer Sam Soliman, an Australian middleweight whose 2013 victory in a world title elimination bout in Dusseldorf, Germany, was nullified after he tested positive for the illegal stimulant Oxilofrine.
"One hundred percent of my practice is issues related to health and fitness, especially bodybuilding," said Collins.
Besides practicing law, he has acted in the "Toxic Avenger" movie series, in which he played a bully, the chairman of Apocalypse Inc. and a police chief. He also co-wrote the book "Alpha Male Challenge: The 10-Week Plan to Burn Fat, Gain Muscle & Build True Alpha Attitude."
"I speak to law students all the time and tell them: 'Sometimes you have to forge your own path.' "
Finding a path to mental health
With a calm demeanor and a soothing voice, Carolyn Reinach Wolf has a way of putting people at ease.
Those attributes can come in handy for someone who deals in some of the most fraught legal decisions: whether to commit or keep a patient in a psychiatric ward.
She came to mental health law by way of her work as an administrator at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset in the 1970s and risk manager at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens in the 1980s, where she worked with hospital lawyers on liability control.
After working at Elmhurst, she enrolled at Hofstra University's School of Law, fulfilling a childhood dream to become an attorney. Once admitted to the bar, she worked as counsel for an insurance company defending hospitals in malpractice cases. In 1989 she co-founded the predecessor of her current firm, Lake Success-based Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Wolf, LLP.
Hospital lawyers soon came calling to ask for representation in mental hygiene law hearings involving patients committed to psychiatric wards. From there, her practice expanded to representing mental health centers. Wolf also provides expertise on mental health law to lawyers working on matrimonial, criminal or financial cases.
What sets her apart from other lawyers? "I speak the language," Wolf said. "I know how to speak to the chief of psychiatry."
These days, Wolf said, a large part of her practice is spent representing families struggling to navigate between the mental health clinical system and the mental health legal system. "My niche has really become advising families," she said.
That work sometimes calls for her to muster a psychiatrist or case manager and a security detail for an in-home psychiatric intervention to get a reluctant patient into a hospital or treatment program.
"We have a 24-hour answering service, so we're often in crisis mode," she said. "We get cases from across the country." A typical case might be a college student who has "a mental health break." The student comes home and becomes less and less functional.
"We provide a tool kit for families," said Wolf, who leads a five-lawyer practice. "It's truly my life's work."
Searching for next of kin
John McFaul is an expert at untangling family trees. The 65-year-old trust and estates lawyer at Rivkin Radler LLP, based in Uniondale, has spent much of his almost 40-year career finding relatives and establishing their right to collect an inheritance from a family member in the New York area.
The job has taken him from Helsinki to Prague, Czech Republic, from Rome to Glasgow, Scotland. "I've been all over the map," he said.
He began in the field by chance, getting a job as an associate to the counsel of the public administrator of Queens County, the office that handles kinship cases when there is no will or known relative. After serving in that job, he went into private practice, representing potential heirs at hearings where oral testimony is corroborated by birth, death and census records.
In the early 2000s, McFaul represented 37 cousins, including former World War II Dutch resistance fighters, in a case involving the estate of their Nassau County cousin. He had to travel to Amsterdam for a hearing about the death on the Eastern Front of another cousin and potential heir who had joined the German Waffen SS to curry the favor of his girlfriend's father.
"The family tree was literally 12 feet long," McFaul said.
Helping four-legged clients
Attorney Carol Ryder of Dix Hills sees herself as a champion for the downtrodden. The ardent advocate, who ran a pet rescue group while studying at Touro Law School, said animal causes are central to her career and her persona.
"I choose the ultimate underdogs," she said of her efforts to help victimized and voiceless pets and disabled humans. At the same time, Ryder said she prefers to face off against someone she sees as a clear-cut villain. "I like to have a big, bad wolf across the table."
Practicing animal law does not pay the bills, she said. It accounts for about 40 percent of her solo law practice "but maybe 5 percent of my income." Disability, foreclosure, matrimonial, estate planning and elder-law cases generate the money.
Ryder, 51, who has two dogs, a pit bull-labrador mix named Lucy and a boxer-cattle dog mix named Monkey, said she does pet trust cases, legal arrangements for animal care in the event of the owner's death, and represents animal welfare groups like NY PAW (New Yorkers Protecting Animal Welfare).
NY PAW, a not-for-profit founded by Ryder, focuses on helping direct-rescue animal groups who find homes for dogs and cats in overflowing shelters.
"Shelters euthanize when there's no room left," she said.
Ryder also deals with pet custody, as in a 2009 Fort Salonga case in which her client got custody of a Lhasa apso mix after a breakup. The client's former partner agreed to visitation rights.
But to really move the needle on animal welfare, Ryder said, the laws must change. She has been pushing for passage in Albany of the Consolidate Animal Crimes Bill. Current law categorizes animals in the Market and Agriculture statutes. Prosecutors' "hands are tied" in animal abuse cases, Ryder said.
The proposed bill would put animal cruelty laws under the penal code, giving the animal rescue movement far more clout.
"You can save a lot more animals with a piece of legislation," Ryder said.