The six hottest practice areas

Not all legal practice specialties are created equal. And in this down economy, the hotter practice areas are fueling entry-level hiring at the small- and medium-sized law firms, where the vast majority of law school graduates get jobs.

“Law firms specializing in bankruptcy, foreclosure and litigation are adding staff to meet increased demand for their services,” said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal. One-third of all lawyers interviewed by Robert Half Legal Hiring said they plan to add legal jobs soon, a figure that is improving from quarter to quarter.

Despite contrary reports, economic recessions aren’t all bad for lawyers. It actually opens up more career prospects in law firms of all sizes, especially in smaller or what are known as boutique firms, experts agree.

Some of the determining factors that drive particular practice areas are often a reflection or a reaction to economic issues and political agendas,” said John O’Connor with Lumen Legal, a Detroit-area legal staffing services firm. “As a nation, we are climbing out of one of the worst economic recessions that we’ve seen in this generation. As a result, corporations, as well as individuals are seeking the legal system as a remedy for financial losses.”

A word of warning: Some of these areas may only stay hot for a short time based on the financial industry’s ups and downs, said Robert Denney, president of Robert Denney Associates, a law firm consultant group.

You have to think ahead,” said Sabrina Trovato Halloran, associate director and director of Pro Bono for Career Development & Public Service at Boston University. So if you want to practice litigation in Boston, you should be aware there are too many already in that pipeline. Thus, it makes sense to consider corporate work, which is more of an up-and-coming arena, she said.

Six of the hottest legal practice areas are:

  • Labor and employment: This area is growing because employees and employers are sorting out differences resulting from what O’Connor calls “defensive corporate maneuvers made during the economic downturn.” Another issue? Discrimination suits by laid-off employees and employers monitoring employees’ use of social media at work. Texas and Chicago are great spots to look for jobs, he added
  • Bankruptcy/Foreclosure: Even as the recession winds down, these practice areas will still be going strong. The so-called housing bubble created a long-term mess, so experts say the demand will be high for years to come. “Pre-packaged bankruptcies are raising the temperature even more,” said Denney. Foreclosure defense also is emerging as an interesting sidebar to this practice area. Attorneys in Florida, Nevada and across the Midwest, particularly hard-hit states like Michigan, are seeing a surge of business, attorneys said. Another surprising area of need is the Pacific region, which includes Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, Volkert said
  • Healthcare: Denney notes that the law is affected by issues such as aging of America, growth of lifecare facilities and changes in employer regulations in light of the new Obama healthcare plan. Legal issues surrounding FDA regulation also is said to be growing. Any area with high popularity densities such as Arizona, Florida and parts of the Midwest are expected to enjoy a rise in the healthcare practice area
  • Intellectual property: According to O’Connor: “If there is a positive side to an economic downturn it’s that it often forces individuals and corporations to think differently and creatively often resulting new products, inventions or ideas.” Areas like social media and e-commerce also are enjoying a surge. New York and California is seeing strong growth, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco
  • Energy/Environmental: Some may argue this practice areas is not as relevant, but Trovato Halloran disagrees, especially in light of mega-disasters like the Gulf oil spill. The Obama administration also may make the environment a key issue, O’Connor said. “As ‘green’ initiatives continue to accelerate, demand for attorneys with experience in these areas is expected to grow,” Volkert added. Denney believes Pennsylvania and the Northeast will see great growth here.
  • Emerging companies: Denney believes there is room to grow in this arena, considering how many new entrepreneurs the nation is seeing. “It is surprising but the number of former big company executives starting new businesses hit a four-year high in 2009 and continues to increase,” he said. Boston is a great area for this kind of company, particularly in newly popular areas such as life sciences and pharmaceuticals, said Trovato Halloran.

Denney is a big fan of boutique firms that specialize in areas such as labor or litigation. Five years ago, these are the firms the big law experts said were dead,” Denney said. “Not so. They are doing very well because big corporations are looking at their strong expertise in certain practice areas. Will they get as much starting salary? No, but their employment security could be a heck of a lot better."

By Karen Dybis for The National Jurist and preLaw magazines