October 05, 2015 Asked and Answered

Which practice areas are going to be the most lucrative in the future? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

With an ever-changing legal landscape—and many unemployed and underemployed lawyers—it's more important than ever to understand how to craft your career. The market for legal jobs may be getting better, but it’s still not great. That being said, are there specific practice areas that need more attorneys to serve current and future needs?

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: The market for legal jobs may be getting better, but it’s still not great. That being said, are there specific practice areas that need more attorneys to serve current and future needs?

I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s Asked and Answered, we’re discussing that question with Valerie Fontaine. She’s a Los Angeles legal search consultant, who also serves as secretary to the board of directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants. Welcome to the show, Valerie.

Valerie Fontaine: Thank you, Stephanie.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yes. For the first question, let’s start with the law students. If you’re a law student, and you don’t have a specific practice in mind yet, what advice would you give them about practice areas that might be hiring more than others?

Valerie Fontaine: Well, first of all, I think students should pay attention to what classes interest them, and perhaps in their clinical experiences, what they like. And they first need to decide whether they want to be a litigator or a transactional lawyer. Those are sort of the two big divides when it comes to law practice. And usually you’re one or the other.

There are some areas of practice where you get to do a little bit of both; say, labor and employment where you might litigate, but you also might advise or do employment agreements or termination agreements. But, in most cases, you’re either–as one of my friends from law school said–a dealmaker or a deal breaker. And you could tell that he was a transactional lawyer, not a litigator. I was a litigator.

So, anyway, the hottest areas of practice right now, I would say are real estate and corporate transactional. And we just can’t keep our clients fed with real estate and corporation transactional lawyers enough. But several years ago, we couldn’t sell those people to save our souls. Those folks were being laid off.

So you need to understand that sort of the economy makes law practice cyclical. So, areas that are hot right now may be completely cold in the future, and vice versa. But right now and for the foreseeable future, real estate and corporate transactional are absolutely hot.

Litigation, which is usually a constant, is down a bit, and that’s because I think during the recession, a lot of companies found that it was just so expensive to litigate that they now will settle or do all kinds of other things not to have to file. So there’s always litigation ongoing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just not as hot as it has been.

IP or intellectual property generally is good because that’s just always booming in every area of our lives. There’s so much developing, in terms of technology and healthcare and content and entertainment, and all those things have intellectual property aspects to them.

And then, of course, there are always areas that are evergreen, like criminal law, family law, and wealth management. Those are sort of the mom-and-pop areas of law where everyday people need those kinds of representation all the time.

And then, going back to labor and employment work, there’s usually something going on in labor and employment. It changes over time, whether it’s wage-and-hour class actions are very hot right now; it’s classifications of workers. There are various kinds of different areas within labor and employment that sort of come and go. But that’s also an evergreen because there’s always employee relations issues that need to be handled.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Going back to real estate practice being very hot right now, are you seeing more of a need for commercial real estate or, as you said earlier, the mom-and-pop type of needs where people are buying properties for themselves and it’s a personal home where they need a real estate lawyer?

Valerie Fontaine: Well, again, the mom-and-pop needs are relatively evergreen in that people are living their lives, and they’re buying and they’re selling. But of course, that always depends upon the economy. For example—and I’m going to go off topic for one second—with bankruptcy, that was hot, hot, hot a number of years ago, and right now, it’s not because the economy’s doing better.

With regard to real estate, you have to understand that, as legal recruiters, what we do is our clients are mostly in the large-to-mid-sized law firms, and their clients are usually businesses. So what we are looking for are commercial and maybe multi-home development, investment, and construction, rather than single-home real estate transactions. But those transactions go on all the time, but of course, during the recession, there were less sales going on, as well.

So I would say probably it’s up across the board, but what I’m talking about, in terms of what I see every day, is real estate in the more commercial world.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And you mentioned that intellectual property is an area that has a need, as well. Do employers—are they very interested in someone who has an advanced degree, like an LLM in intellectual property or maybe someone who went to a law school that had a section with an intellectual property focus? Does that matter to them?

Valerie Fontaine: Well, I’m going to go back further than that. What they really want is somebody who has an undergraduate degree. If you have an EE, you’re golden. If you have a degree in computer science, electrical engineering, maybe mechanical engineering, those areas–even physics–and if you’re going to go in the life sciences, IP, people with molecular biology, other kinds of biology, those areas. So I’m going all the way back to undergraduate degrees that are important.

And some of our law firm clients want people who have master’s and even PhDs in the sciences. So it’s harder for somebody who has a liberal arts background to go into IP unless you’re doing what’s called Soft IP, which is more the trademark, copyright, that area.

But that is growing because of what’s going on with content and the Internet and entertainment and all of those kinds of things. But what’s really booming is what’s going on in the hard sciences and hard IP areas, as well.

Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s very interesting, and I’m curious. I know at one point back in the ’80s and the ’90s, it was kind of a given that if you went to law school, if you left your career and went to law school, you’d probably make more money. And then, during the great recession, it’s like, “No, that’s probably not a good idea. You can make more money being an engineer or whatever you’re doing than being a lawyer” because the market was so—

Valerie Fontaine: [laughs]

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, and the tuition became so high. I’m curious, for these hard sciences like you mentioned, does it make financial sense for someone who is an engineer who has an interest in law school to go to law school? Will that bring him or her a more lucrative career now?

Valerie Fontaine: I would say the first reason and the only reason you should go to law school is because you want to be a lawyer, and you’re fascinated by the law as it intersects with whatever area of life you’re going to be involved in practice.

So I would not tell an engineer to go to law school to make more money. I would tell an engineer to go to law school because they’re really interested in how they can take the combination of their legal degree and their engineering background and do something that interests them in their life.

I would say, though, that somebody who has a strong hard sciences background and goes to a decent law school and does well will have a successful legal career because there is a need for those kind of people.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. One thing that it seems like a lot of people in the profession are talking about now are all of these IT legal services providers, and they’re hiring lawyers to work for them, like companies that use technology for knowledge management or assisting in document recovery. Are many lawyers interested in working for these companies? And if so, what should they sort of focus on to make themselves more attractive to the firms?

Valerie Fontaine: Well, I can’t say that I’ve had a number of candidates come to me and say they want to go into that area. We have had those kinds of companies come to us and say they want to hire lawyers. Oftentimes, they want to hire lawyers in a sales capacity because they figure that lawyers will understand the needs of other lawyers and help them place their products or help them develop their products.

But I would say, for a lawyer that’s interested in a career in those areas–which I think is a very viable career path–there are a couple of things that they should do. First of all, they need to kind of learn what’s out there. At the moment, those are still sort of non-traditional paths, and there are a lot of legal tech fairs, legal tech magazines and websites, and they should look at those to see what sort of products are being offered. Also, they should attend those fairs and just sort of see the products and listen to those salespeople and see how they’re being promoted and positioned in the legal marketplace.

There are certain areas of law that I think are using these techniques or technologies more than others at this point, though I think it’s becoming more and more pervasive.

So, usually, I think it helps if somebody has a little bit of practice experience first, so they can understand how those products and technologies can assist and be used, both in terms of selling them and in developing them.

But I would have to say that most of what we’ve seen–because we work with experienced lawyers who are making career changes–is they go in as consultants to these companies.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And are you seeing trends with doing contract work, work that goes beyond—they’re looking for skills other than document review?

Valerie Fontaine: There are companies, or actually—excuse me—law firms—maybe I’ll say companies, too—that use contract workers, as they’re not wanting to add to their permanent workforce, because it might be a project or a big case that comes up and they are needing extra expertise, and they don’t want to have permanent headcount because once that project or case goes away, they don’t need those people.

So, yes, there are substantive areas where contract lawyers are very useful and are in demand. Usually, they are going to be more seasoned lawyers, because the hiring employer needs somebody who can come in and hit the ground running and work on a particular case or matter. So it depends on the subject matter of that project. It depends on what they’re looking for.

Oftentimes, litigation firms need contract lawyers when they are gearing up to do a big case, and it’s not just the document review, as you’re saying. There’s a lot of research and writing for the motions and work that goes into all of the litigation leading up to the preparation for either settlement or trial. There’s more in the litigation field, I would say, than in the transactional field.

But there are also are needs when companies or law firms have skilled lawyers who are going out, say, on maternity leave or other sort of personal leave, and they need to fill in some time.

There are people actually who make a whole career of being a contractor project lawyer because it gives them flexibility, and they can work when they want to work and not work when they don’t. But you’re kind of your own boss when that happens, and you need to know that there’s going to be an ebb and flow in your work life that way.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And, generally speaking, who are the firms looking for, for those sorts of positions? Will they take someone maybe who has done that sort of work, but in government or a small firm, or do big firms what big-firm people? Do small firms want small-firm people? How does that usually work out?

Valerie Fontaine: Well, I would say that all different sizes of firms use contract workers. And, often, the small firms use them because they can then take a larger matter they wouldn’t be able to staff with their permanent staff. Large firms need them when they have a big project that they don’t want to hire a permanent lawyer for because they won’t need the people once that project goes away.

So I don’t think that big-firm people only work for big-firm projects and vice versa. However, you would find that the larger firms tend to like people that have the large-firm background because they understand the kinds of cases and matters that large firms have and how the large firm generally staffs and works.

On the other hand, small firms also like to get people who have large-firm expertise. When it comes to contract work, they’re really looking for skills. And oftentimes those skills come with fancy pedigrees, but not always.

And since those people are not going to be necessarily shown on a firm’s website, oftentimes the large firms are very concerned about pedigrees because they want to look a certain way to the world. They also think that certain schools and certain large firms have certain levels of training that they want to rely upon.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious about—it seems like a lot of firms somewhat recently have been bringing on staff attorneys who are, I’m assuming, attorneys who do the legal work, but they’re not on the partnership track, and perhaps the work is a little different. Is that still something that private firms are doing now?

Valerie Fontaine: Yes, I think that’s something that’s really going to be here to stay. And there’s two reasons that they have done this. One is that they have some lawyers that they want to keep on staff who don’t want to work full time or maybe don’t want to become partners and want sort of a less structured or less stressful career path, and there are also people who are brought on to do more repetitive work.

It’s kind of insourcing as opposing to outsourcing. A little while ago, we spoke about these legal process outsourcers or alternative providers of legal work. And there are law firms who also bring people in house, and sometimes, they even have offices located in lower cost centers where they have these kinds of staff, lawyers. And they give them, I would say, more rote and repetitive kinds of legal work to do.

And so, if there’s a firm that has practice areas that has just a lot of rote work and repetitive kind of work, and it might be in real estate, generating forms; or corporate, generating forms, or even doing due diligence in some of these areas; or sometimes in prosecution of intellectual property, there’s a lot of research that goes into that that doesn’t necessarily need to be done by the higher-level lawyers, that can be done by staff attorneys.

They pay them less. They probably work less hours. They don’t have the expectations of people on partnership track, but they’re also very solid career paths, and there are folks who like not having the kind of pressure that is required to be on partnership track.

Now, sometimes law firms require that those folks also have the kinds of credentials that they would require for their partner-track people or close to those credentials. Other firms hire people who have maybe slightly less fancy credentials. I’m talking about the schools they went to. They went to strong schools, but maybe not the Top 15, or they maybe didn’t do quite as well in their class, but they’re still very smart and very capable lawyers.

And so what the firms are looking for, again, are people that work hard that are very smart and who can do an excellent job. But they may not be requiring some of the fancy entrance requirements they have for hiring their partner-track people.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I have seen some situations where someone was on a partner track. The firm was having problems. They were laid off, and they’re now staff attorneys. When you come across someone like that or a candidate for the staff attorney jobs with that background, what kind of advice do you have for them about settling in, because I would imagine that could be a big adjustment?

Valerie Fontaine: Well, I would say we saw more of that, and things are doing better now, so people are getting more partnership-track positions if that’s indeed what they want. We were advising people before, in the recession when people were being laid off and there were so few jobs, any law-related job was a good job to have because it kept them still in the loop and developing their skills to some degree.

But what happens is, when they get back on a partnership-track situation if they move to another firm, they may have to take a step back in terms of seniority and class-year credit towards partnership when they settle back in.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you have general advice about being realistic with your salary requirements in the current market?

Valerie Fontaine: Oh, be realistic about everything, I think. The first thing people need to understand is that there have been no real raises in associate pay since before the recession began. Which means, in real terms, the lawyers are probably making less because inflation has gone up a little bit. But where the more successful firms make up the difference is in bonuses. But there really has been no real change, in terms of base salary over the last number of years.

The first thing that people need to do is they need to do research to look at the kind of salaries that are being paid at similarly situated law firms in their market. For example, I had somebody in my office last week who is moving to Los Angeles from Sacramento, and he’s making a certain amount of money in Sacramento. But those are Sacramento dollars, which go a whole lot further than Los Angeles dollars; or, for example, somebody who’s coming from the Midwest, and vice versa.

If you’re moving from a large market that’s an expensive market, and you are going to be going to a lower-cost-of-living market, you may find that the general salaries are a whole lot less, but they go further.

So you need to take into account the kind of firm you’re looking at, the kind of practice they’re involved in, either in premium practices or work for smaller companies that they have lower billing rates. If a law firm charges lower billing rates, they can only pay their lawyers less than a law firm that charges higher billing rates. It’s just a matter of simple economics.

So there’s a lot of research that goes into it, so you have real expectations, as you look at the kind of practice, the kind of client the firm has, the geographical area. What is generally paid to someone in that situation? And so, even if you’ve been making X amount of dollars in your current position, if you’re moving to a different kind of position, then you’re going to make less, and you need to be ready to accept that.

Also, people forget, when they move in-house, they’re going to probably take a huge cut in pay because the economics generally are that way. You might take a lesser amount in terms of your base salary, but then there are other bonus opportunities or possibly equity opportunities or other perks, like discounts on the company products, car allowances, things that you don’t generally get in a law firm environment. So you need to know what is typical for the kind of position that you’re going to be looking at.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And you mentioned the regional issue. Are you seeing that some parts of California have more legal jobs available and perhaps a real need for lawyers, compared to others? I mean, there’s probably a lot of people that want to live in Southern California or Northern California, but maybe there’s more jobs in Central California.

Valerie Fontaine: Well, I would say yes and no. There are less lawyers in Central California, which means that there are less law firms, which means there are less jobs. But, on the other hand, there are certain areas that are more attractive to, I would say, young lawyers. They would rather live in a big city perhaps than in the country or more rural areas. So there may be more opportunities in those areas.

I would say—I was actually thinking more in terms of there have been studies about the number of lawyers in different states, and there are some states that are in dire need of lawyers, and there have been studies showing the number of lawyers per capita. But you also have to look at the number of lawyers per business opportunities because if there are not a lot of businesses in those areas, and if they’re not highly settled, you know, it’s not a lot of density, they may have less lawyers, but they also may have less legal need.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. Say that you’re an attorney and you’ve been out, you have a practice, and maybe you don’t like it that much, or maybe it’s just really not paying the bills for you, what’s your advice about having the lawyer step back and think a bit about how he or she can retool their career so that maybe it’s a little bit more profitable for them and they’re happy with it? I mean, maybe that means moving out of state. Who knows? But what are your thoughts on that?

Valerie Fontaine: Right. Well, I would think that one of—well, two things: First of all, you need to look at what actual skills you have and what might be transferable to a new area of practice and sort of think outside a little bit about, if you’re a litigator, what skills you actually have. And if you don’t like the cases you’re doing, are there other kinds of cases you might enjoy more where you can still build on those skills?

You might want to take a look at perhaps developing a niche in a specific area, like people who do maybe equity law or water law or have a particular area that’s a need in the geographical area where they are.

I would say that taking MCLE courses in different areas of law to see what might interest you and just hear other practitioners talk about what their practice is like, which leads me to also thinking about doing informational interviews, so you can talk to—just talking to different lawyers about what they do, getting involved in bar association or volunteer pro bono opportunities because that lets you get your hands on doing different kinds of law to try them out, and learning what you like and what you don’t like and what you might be good at.

So there are different ways to sort of do some exploration. But no matter what, I would always advise lawyers to—don’t give up what they have before they’ve got something else.

If there’s a way to sort of organically sort of evolve your practice into a different area, or if you are in a law firm, and you’re not thrilled with what it is you’re doing, but you think you might be more interested in another area of practice, see if you can get an assignment or two and getting to know the lawyers in that other area of practice and see if you can maybe volunteer to help with something, or volunteer to help write a speech, or help them put on a seminar in that area or something, so you get to know the lawyers who do it, know the areas of practice, and sort of get a taste of it. And then you sort of can grow in that direction.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And do you have any advice on speculation perhaps of predicting what attorney needs are going to be there in a few years? I know I was thinking, when we were in the real estate boom, I wondered if maybe people knew, “Gosh, in a couple years, there’s going to be a lot of foreclosure work.” I know, in my circles, it was more like, “Who in the heck is paying $1 million for a one-bedroom apartment? Who are these people?” And I don’t know if it occurred to us.

Valerie Fontaine: Right, right. Well, it’s always good to be recession-proof as much as you can. So, in other words, if you are doing real-estate finance deals, you also want to make sure you know how to do restructuring and insolvency. You want to know how to do the other side because, like I said at the beginning of the program, practice is cyclical because the economy is cyclical.

So when there is a building boom going on, there’s a lot of construction contract work to be done and finance work to be done, and then the other side of that is, besides the restructuring and insolvency and foreclosures, is sort of along the way, if there’s been a lot of building very quickly, there’s going to be a lot of construction-defect cases that are going to come down the pike.

And then, when there’s construction defect, insurance companies are going to fight over who has to pay for that, so there’s insurance coverage issues. And you have to kind of look at the domino effect of what’s going on right now. Where might that be leading?

Other areas—I mean, I wish I had a crystal ball. I knew when we were in the recession, and they were laying off all of the transactional real estate and corporate lawyers, that in five years, we were going to be looking for them and they don’t exist, and that’s what’s going on right now. So that’s part of the cyclical nature of what’s going on, and I’ve been through this now through a number of these cycles.

But look for areas that are growing and developing. As I was talking about, there’s been so much development in life sciences and in technology and, also, there’s this intersection of what’s going on with content, with both the computer delivery systems and entertainment delivery systems. People who used to just be in the delivery systems are now wanting to make their own content. So there’s a lot of IP and tech transactions that are going on, and those are just continuing to grow, as technology develops.

Another area of practice I think that’s really going to be hot is healthcare regulatory. No matter who gets to be president next, there’s still going to be lots of fights over the Affordable Care Act or whatever it’s going to morph into, and regulatory schemes that go into making that workable. And so, healthcare, regulatory, and transactional lawyers are going to be hot.

So you have to look at always what’s going on economically and politically and technologically and sort of try to figure out where things are going to keep ahead of the curve with your practice.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. And that’s everything I had to ask you today, Valerie. Did you want to add anything else?

Valerie Fontaine: I just wanted to sort of reiterate that in order to be a really good lawyer, you have to do what you love and what motivates you and what inspires you. And so doing something that interests you and that aligns with your moral compass is always a good thing. So you need to always think in terms of making a living, but it’s not just about dollars and cents.

So you don’t want to go to law school just to make money, and you don’t want to go into particular areas of practice just to make money. This is your life, as well as making a living. So I just would recommend that people think of themselves in more holistic terms, as well as just dollars and cents.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I am curious. You mentioned going to law school just to make money, and given all the stories about the rising cost of tuitions and the jobs, are there still people today who are going to law school just to make money, do you think?

Valerie Fontaine: I do think that people still think that having a legal education is something that’s going to help them make money down the road. And a lot of people end up going to law school because they don’t know what else to do with themselves, or their parents expect them to do that, and those are not the reasons to go. The only reason you should go to law school is because it interests you, and that’s what you want to be doing with your time and your life.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. Thank you for listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

[End of transcript]

Updated on Oct. 8 to add the transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Valerie Fontaine, a legal search consultant, is a partner with Seltzer Fontaine in Los Angeles. She’s the author of The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers, which was published by NALP, the National Association for Law Placement.