New Year career planning includes an analysis of how your practice did last year and what you expect in the year to come. Look not only at the clients and matters you’re handling, but also at what’s going on at your firm and in the legal marketplace and business environment generally. Hot and cold areas of law practice fluctuate with economic and political cycles. Areas that are hot right now may be completely cold in the future, and vice versa. You want to make sure you’re ready to avoid any potholes and maximize all opportunities that come your way.
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, real estate and corporate transactional practices are sizzling hot. With funds again more available with the economic recovery, real estate finance, development, construction, purchase and sale, and land use are booming. Likewise, mergers and acquisitions and all areas of corporate finance are in demand. But several years ago, practitioners in those areas were laid off in droves. Legal recruiters knew when law firms jettisoned most of the transactional real estate and corporate lawyers during the recession that, when the economy improved, they’d be looking for mid- to senior level transactional associates. Unfortunately and, as expected, associates with two to five years of experience in those areas are rare now, since none were being trained during the downturn.
On the other hand, business litigation, which usually is in demand, is down across the country. During the recession, companies increasingly settled claims or otherwise manage their risks so as not to file prohibitively expensive lawsuits. Litigation avoidance practices continue even as the economy recovers. There’s always litigation ongoing, of course, but it’s not as hot as in the past. One recent survey predicts an uptick in litigation hiring in the first six months of 2016, however, with insurance defense as the most mentioned growth area.
As technology advances in virtually every area of our lives, demand continues to grow for “hard” IP expertise such as patent prosecution, as well as for “soft” IP expertise, such as licensing, copyright and trademark. There’s so much developing in computer technology, life sciences, content, and entertainment—all of which have intellectual property aspects to them.
Additionally, there are interesting intersections between content and both computer and entertainment delivery systems. Companies that, previously, only were involved in delivery systems now make their own content (such as Netflix and Amazon developing their own shows). Consequently, there’s significant new IP and tech transactions legal work in those areas, as well. L.A.’s Silicon Beach, for example, has many new players in this arena.
Healthcare is another area of practice that will remain hot, including regulatory, litigation, and transactional work. Mergers and acquisition among healthcare providers, insurers, and pharmaceutical companies increased over the past year or so and show no sign of slowing. And, regardless of who wins the next presidential election, fights over the Affordable Care Act itself (or whatever it morphs into) will continue, as well as over the regulatory schemes to make it workable.
Labor and employment expertise is almost always in demand although the specifics change over time. Any company anywhere in the U.S. with at least one employee has employee relations issues, and labor policies and handbooks that need continual updating. Currently, wage-and-hour class actions and disputes regarding classification of workers are hot, but there always seems to be some new aspect of labor and employment law that requires clarification and resolution. For example, California leads the way with some of the nation's toughest employment laws and continues to shake things up with its new law, The California Fair Pay Act, effective January 1, 2016. The Act requires any company with operations in California, regardless of where based, to use a new model of analysis to ensure that men and women are paid equally. The Act is expected to provide significant business for employment lawyers for the foreseeable future.
Despite what is going on in the world, some areas of practice are evergreen, where practitioners find regular work, such as in criminal law, family law, personal injury, and wealth management. Those are the “mom-and-pop” areas of law where everyday people need legal assistance to live productive lives in our society. Moreover, as the population ages, the need for practitioners in the multi-disciplinary area of elder law continues to grow. Of course the law in these areas changes regularly, but the demand stays relatively constant.
It’s a good idea to keep an eye on what’s happening economically, politically, and technologically to stay ahead of the curve with your practice. Although the economy is stronger now, at some point in the future it will take another downturn. Prepare for that eventuality by taking steps to recession-proof your practice as much as you can. In other words, if you handle real-estate finance deals, you also want to know how to handle the “flip side”, such as restructuring and insolvency, because history teaches us that the economy is cyclical.
Furthermore, with presidential elections coming this November, other changes affecting law practice—the nature of which will depend upon who wins—are inevitable. With that in mind, by the end of 2016, you should be taking steps to position yourself accordingly for success in 2017 and beyond.