Bar News - January 21, 2015
2015 In the Law: What’s Hot, What’s Not
The following is an edited version of a report by national law firm consultant Robert Denney. It has been condensed to focus on the interests of small and mid-size firms.
Practice Areas and Industries
Intellectual Property. Trademarks and patent prosecution have become red hot.
Patent litigation continues to be red hot due to Congress’s failure to address patent reform and patent trolls’ continued licensing and suits.
Federal False Claims. The number of whistleblower cases grows every year.
Labor & Employment. President Obama’s August executive order regarding contractors
and subcontractors who receive more than $500,000 in federal money fuels an
area that was already hot due to union campaigns and wage-and-hour class action suits.
Technology. Will become red hot if patent reform finally occurs next year.
Anti-corruption and White Collar Crime. Larger US firms continue to increase enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, leading to more prosecutions. Also, white collar crime prosecution and defense is heating up in many areas including government, health care, tax and intellectual property.
Litigation. More bet-the-company cases are going to mid-size and boutique firms. Much of the work is still on an hourly basis although there appear to be more contingency arrangements.
Inversions. This will continue to be Hot unless the Administration and Congress agree on significant changes in corporate tax laws.
Energy. All forms including “clean.”
Health Care. Adding to the heat are billing investigations and complaints from patients on HIPAA compliance along with self-reports related to privacy and security breaches.
Elder Law. This practice area continues to grow because people need to make changes in their estate plans since they are living longer. Some firms now have paralegals who research life care facilities and retirement homes to help clients select living arrangements they can afford.
Gay Marriage Rights and Immigration. Heating up due to developments in the states and Obama’s executive action.
Other Trends and Issues
Cybersecurity is becoming the #1 concern of law firms – as it should be.
Project management. Produces efficiency, fee transparency, client value and profits. Many firms have yet to recognize this or are having difficulty implementing it.
Alternative Billing. Hourly billing lives on despite predictions of its demise. What clients and general counsel really want is clarity and transparency.
Firm size. Some are growing in size and revenue, but other firms are having more trouble than they admit. Mid-size and smaller firms are receiving more work that used to go to big-name firms. Their rates are lower – often 30-40 percent less – and often lawyers at smaller firms pay more attention to their clients’ needs and desires than those at the large firms.
Leverage. The traditional ratio of associates to partners – the pyramid – continues to
decline. But if all timekeepers, including not only associates but also paralegals, contract and temporary lawyers are included, the pyramid may actually be larger and more significant than ever. In most matters, it is not the partners but other timekeepers who produce profitability.
Succession Planning. Importance is widely recognized, but implementation is the challenge.
Growth. Many firms, regardless of size, measure growth by the increase in the number of lawyers. But there are other, more important metrics that must be measured: revenues; profits; numbers of new clients; additional work for current clients; development of new practice areas.
Role of in-house counsel. In-house counsel in many corporations are gaining a growing role in corporate governance. The outside lawyer for many small and family-owned businesses is often also the “trusted business advisor” and a member of the board.
Non-Lawyers. For more than a decade, law firms have been increasingly hiring non-lawyer executives. In the last two years, non-lawyers are being hired to oversee knowledge management and project management.
Entry-level hiring. Increased roughly 4 percent for the class of 2013 nine months after graduation, but it is still below that of pre-recession levels. The future for the class of 2015 with private law firms is still uncertain. The future for more law school graduates may lie with corporate legal departments, not law firms or in public service.
Commodity work. Some firms refuse it because of the low rates while others have learned how to do it efficiently and profitably.
Litigation funding. The historic restrictions on companies that invest in lawsuits in exchange for a cut of the proceeds if their side prevails have been relaxed or even abolished in several states such as Texas, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Florida.
Starting with the recession there has been an increasing malaise within the legal profession due to a number of developments – the oversupply of lawyers, increasing competition and clients who are more demanding, to mention just a few. What they all add up to is change – and uncertainty about the future.
Robert Denney Associates Inc. provides strategic management and marketing counsel to law firms throughout the United States and part of Canada. Read the full What’s Hot, What’s Not Communique report.