The Pandemic Effect

COVID-19 Has Shifted The Hierarchy of Practice Areas

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, law firms also continue to adapt their practice offerings by redirecting their resources from less demanding practices to areas that address clients' most imminent pandemic-related needs.

While activities in most practice areas have slowed during the pandemic, data provided to Law360 revealed several practice areas are seeing an increase attributed to law firms redirecting their recruiting efforts and lawyers pivoting their services to fit in with the more in-demand areas.

"In response to changes in demand, we see attorneys re-focus their practice, which causes us to adjust the practice area designations that we assign each attorney. We've seen a lot of this with data privacy recently, and due to all of the bankruptcies caused by COVID, bankruptcy as well," Adam Oliver, managing director of legal data company Firm Prospects LLC, told Law360.

"By way of example, a litigator who previously handled securities, white collar, IP and bankruptcy work, but who now focuses almost exclusively on bankruptcy work due to the increased demand, would update his or her biography, which would then trigger a change in practice area designation by us," Oliver added. 

According to data collected by Firm Prospects, which tracks about 2,200 law firms, the number of lawyers with "bankruptcy" in their bibliography increased by 47, from 12,810 on Mar. 1 to 12,857 on Nov. 30. Meanwhile, the number of lawyers that listed "restructuring" in their bibliography had jumped by more than 500, from 20,181 to 20,687.

Since the country's first coronavirus peak in March, the total lawyers' headcount had grown for a handful of practice areas, including antitrust, bankruptcy, data privacy, international trade and telecommunications, according to Firm Prospect's data.

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While a few practice areas, such as data privacy and bankruptcy, were already in demand before COVID-19 hit, Oliver noted that most of them had grown because of the numerous legal issues that arose from the pandemic.

In addition to adjusting attorneys' practices to high-demand practices, Oliver and several other legal industry experts pointed out that some of the more financially stable law firms have also been taking advantage of the pandemic to poach experienced attorneys in those practice areas.

Generally, the lateral activity across the industry slowed down during the pandemic. According to data collected and analyzed by Decipher, a firm that provides pre-hire due diligence on lateral partners and associates, partner lateral moves dropped to 3,322 for the first 11 months of 2020, down by 21% compared to the average of the previous three years. Meanwhile, associate lateral hiring is down by 24%, to 8,853.

However, despite the overall slowdown in lateral hirings, several practice areas, including bankruptcy, data privacy, FDA and telecommunications, have added more attorneys in 2020 when compared to the average of the past three years, Decipher's data showed.

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"Law firm partners leave law firms for one of two reasons either leadership reasons or strategy reasons," said Scott Love, a Washington, D.C.-based legal recruiter and founder of The Attorney Search Group, a legal recruiting firm focusing on partner and group placements for large law firms.

"I think this crisis has magnified problems within firms, it's illuminated the stress cracks of firms," Love continued. "So the surprising result of this crisis is that some partners are even more interested in leaving their firms and going to other firms."

Compared to the past three years' average, practice areas that have added more partners this year were bankruptcy, data privacy, FDA, and entertainment and media, according to Decipher's data. Meanwhile, associate lateral moves also increased for bankruptcy, data privacy, FDA, as well as antitrust, insurance and telecommunications.

"The [lateral] market has certainly seen a big uptick in the third quarter," said Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa's law firm practice. He added, "It actually started in the second quarter. Sometime towards mid- to late summer, we've started to see increased movement."

According to Lowe, law firms have increased their requests for attorneys with health care and FDA expertise to address legal matters related to the pandemic. At the same time, he is also seeing a growing demand for white-collar fraud attorneys because of fraud cases over the $2 trillion economic relief package relief packages.

As many firms slowly adapt to the "new normal" of the pandemic and show signs of financial stability, Lowe said he expects lateral hiring to pick up at the year-end and remain robust into next year.

"This experience has really changed the world, profoundly, and I think people will continue to pursue expertise that deals with these areas, and I don't see it is going away," Lowe said. "You're gonna see a continued desire for these types of practice areas."

In addition to hiring for the pandemic-related practices, Love said that he has been getting more requests from firms for corporate and real estate partners.

"When you see firms that are willing to make investments in those areas, then I get an optimistic feeling about the future of law firms overall," he added.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

Updated: This story has been updated to include further information on Decipher.

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