October 23, 2012

Some Trends Don't Last—So Which Will You Bet On?

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Trends Report

By Robert W. Denney

Your success could depend on which trends you opt to ignore or to embrace.

Our latest annual report on "What's Hot and What's Not in the Legal Profession," carried in this magazine's January/February issue, covered more than 60 trends and issues in brief. The only drawback with the self-imposed format used in that report is that it doesn't allow, in most cases, for discussion of what has caused these trends or whether they will continue.

So, in keeping with the spirit and purpose of this column, here is a review of a few of the key trends and a prediction of what will become of them, to help you better decide where you will place your bets in your going-forward plans.

Practice Area Prognostications

Intellectual property leads the list of "red hot" areas, as it has for a number of years. An obvious reason for this status is the continued worldwide explosion in technology. But there are other causes as well. Medical research and practice and the pharmaceutical industry continue to raise IP issues, as does the delivery of health-care services generally. A less-recognized yet significant cause is the growth in literature and the arts. And in recent years professional sports teams have been raising significant IP issues, too, with regard to copyrights and counterfeiting. Given all these causes, IP should continue to be red hot for a long time.

Estate planning and administration and elder law are two areas that will continue to be hot because of the aging population in the United States. Family law, including subspecialties such as divorce, custody and adoption, will also continue to be hot owing to the nation's high divorce rate and the slowly declining birth rate. And with the controversy over immigration, this area should continue to be hot for the foreseeable future, too.

Antitrust is an area that historically has trended up and down depending on whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House. Now, though, the continued growth of multinational companies, joint ventures and strategic alliances should keep this area hot for years regardless of which party controls the Administration. On the other hand, currently hot areas such as antitrust, M&A, IPOs and private equity will, at some point, cool down for a while because they are a function of the economy.

Marketing and Business Development Update

For a number of years (though it may seem like ancient history to some) firms' marketing efforts began—and often ended—with publishing a firm brochure. The electronic age finally reversed that trend, and today Web sites are a requisite in just about every firm's marketing arsenal. As for blogs, probably only a social scientist could identify what has caused this trend. However, we expect they will continue for a while and then die down, just like talk radio did years ago, before it resurged in popularity.

The trend toward hiring chief marketing officers is the result of several factors: (1) the trend toward chief operating officers; (2) the expansion of marketing programs and marketing departments; and (3) firms recognizing the importance of the marketing function. It doesn't take a genius to predict that this trend will continue.

On the other hand, we believe the trend toward having professional salespersons, usually called business development directors, has peaked. Replacing it is the trend for the business development director to concentrate on market research, developing target clients and industries and serving as a coach to the lawyers in their business development efforts.

Forecasts for Other Trends and Issues

Firm mergers will go on, of course, but probably at a different level. If the history of the accounting profession is any indicator—and we find it typically is—there will be a leveling off in the number of megafirms. Instead, there will be more mergers among the "second-tier" (in size, not quality) firms that need to expand their resources but will not attempt to compete for the same clients that the international giants do. At the same time, many midsize firms will continue to reject mergers but will survive and prosper because they do not try to be "all things to all people" and focus on only certain practice areas, industries and types of clients.

Because managing a law firm has become so complex, the movement toward a stronger management structure—in which certain partners give up their practices to be full-time managers—will persist. It has already become a necessity in large firms. Although most midsize firms will still not have a full-time partner-manager in coming years, those partners will reduce their client load to spend more time managing the firm. Furthermore, with increasing numbers of baby boomers retiring over the next 10 years, the trend in succession planning will become standard procedure in almost every size firm.

In any business or professional firm, survival and growth depend to a great degree on recognizing current and coming trends, ignoring those that are short-term and adapting to those that will last. Still, selecting which trends to "put your chips on," so to speak, can sometimes be more challenging than going to a casino. The key is understanding the odds.