Law360 (January 1, 2019, 12:03 PM EST) — A strong, although uncertain, economy going into the new year is driving an uptick in work for law firms as corporations scramble to position themselves for success in 2019, creating particularly heavy demand for attorneys in three key practice areas.
The unpredictability of the current U.S. economy is driving corporations to rely on their outside counsel to stay ahead of the game, with the goals of benefiting from the economy’s growth, preparing for a potential downturn and avoiding the behemoth financial consequences of a legal blunder.
Experts point to three practice areas that are poised to thrive in 2019 as a consequence of those economic factors: high-stakes litigation, private equity and cybersecurity.
Law firms are ramping up hiring in these practice areas and demand for lawyers with expertise in them is reaching a fever pitch, according to legal recruiters.
“Legal professionals with experience in these high-growth practice areas are seeing competitive salaries and multiple job offers,” said Robert Half Legal executive director Jamy Sullivan.
Here is the inside scoop on the three hottest practice areas for 2019.
Going into 2019, many law firms are balancing their desire to meet clients’ needs in the current, strong economy and looking ahead to consider how they might thrive should that positive environment evaporate. One practice area that allows firms to do both is high-stakes litigation.
“Litigation always provides a safe harbor for ongoing and heightened revenues for all major firms,” said Larry Watanabe of legal recruiting firm Watanabe Nason LLC.
In uncertain times, large, bet-the-company lawsuits tend to be one of the more dependable cash cows for firms, and as a result, hiring in that field is expected to be on fire in the new year.
Additionally, the financial exposure that large corporations face has grown over the past five years, with massive court rulings reaching far above $1 billion becoming more commonplace and threatening companies’ very existence, according to Michael Rynowecer of BTI Consulting Group.
In that type of situation, a good law firm with an impressive bench of lawyers becomes vital, explained Rynowecer, a consultant to law firms.
“Clients who say they’re facing this type of litigation have more than doubled,” he said. “And the risk never goes away until you settle it or close it out.”
Rynowecer said clients are looking for strong teams of lawyers to handle large, complex matters, and are no longer satisfied when law firms try to pitch them on one or two impressive partners.
“Firms need to show up with multiple people who can speak to the issue strategically and holistically as a team,” he said.
In a recent survey conducted by Robert Half Legal, a vast majority of the lawyers surveyed said their organizations, both corporations and law firms, are finding it difficult to find skilled talent to meet their needs, according to Sullivan.
“We’ve seen the number of civil lawsuits filed in state and federal courts increasing, driving demand for professionals with litigation backgrounds,” she said.
As the economy has gained strength over the past several years, private equity deals have soared, creating a lucrative practice for some law firms.
“In general, the increase in private equity deals is leading many firms to expand that practice group,” Sullivan said, adding that the expansion often spans practice areas, as private equity deals often involve legal experts in a number of areas including tax, transactions, finance and antitrust.
“An individual, whether they’re an attorney or legal support professional, is in high demand if they’ve had exposure in all those areas,” she added.
Private equity is currently “far and away” the biggest area of interest for her clients, mostly large law firms, according to legal recruiter Sabina Lippman of Lippman Jungers LLC.
“I don’t think private equity work is ever going out of style. It’s the best way for law firms to guarantee recurring work,” Lippman said.
Law firms that have strong relationships with private equity firms, such as Ropes & Gray LLP, Sidley Austin LLP and Goodwin Procter LLP, have a steady income source from those clients, and in a practice area that demands high rates, Lippman explained.
“More firms are trying to get in on the action based on how lucrative the work is,” she said, which means high demand for laterals who have PE firms in their books of business.
The most desirable laterals, according to Lippman, are those who work with the top 10 PE firms, which include Blackstone, Carlysle, Apollo and Bain Capital.
“There’s a finite number of people working with the top PE firms. It’s tough to find people who have really strong relationships with those firms, and when you have someone like that they’re very highly sought-after because it’s sort of like printing money,” she said.
Cybersecurity as a practice area is expanding faster than any other because it impacts just about every industry and company, according to Jeannie LaBelle of Rifkin Consulting.
From health care records to customer information on retail websites to intellectual property that is stored digitally, corporations in numerous industries are seeking to keep their information safe and mitigate their risks if something does go awry.
Those risks are “huge,” according to Lateral Link’s Michael Jude DiGennaro, making the lawyers who can mitigate those risks even more sought-after.
“Hackers don’t restrict attacks to select industries, the information that they steal is highly sensitive, and the cost to companies are huge — exceeding a $100 million dollars per company in certain instances,” DiGennaro said.
In response, many law firms have been working to build cybersecurity practice groups in recent years, and when they can’t do that internally, many look to laterals to grow a practice, LaBelle said.
And lawyers who have expertise in cybersecurity also have a number of other job options outside of law firms, including within corporations, she added, making the market for those with expertise red-hot.
There is still “so much” room for growth in many law firms’ cybersecurity groups at all levels, from associate to partner, said Alisa Chestler, a cybersecurity partner at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, because the practice area is still relatively new.
“We are absolutely bringing people on within our own ranks. We are focusing a lot on growth and training, not just the acquisition of new laterals, but also training for existing lawyers,” Chestler said. “It’s touching all of our clients, not just health or finance. Cybersecurity is agnostic as to industry, politics or anything else.”
–Editing by Rebecca Flanagan and Alanna Weissman.
By Aebra Coe