Securing Your Practice’s Future: Helping Your Law Firm’s Practice Areas Evolve

Previously, I’ve written that “you catch the fish in the ponds you fish in.” For your law firm, that means not only do you attract the eyeballs that are looking where you’re marketing, but also that you’ll attract the clients who need the types of services your law firm offers. To put it another way, do you practice in the areas of law where people need help now?

I’ve also written about how small law firms need to develop a plan to evolve their business practices through a process of strategic planning. But the rapid changes in the legal market over the past month due to the pandemic are forcing law firms to make these changes faster than any of us have ever thought necessary.

In my last piece, I wrote about the need for small law firms to rapidly shift to digital marketing.

Big law firms are seeing lawyers furloughed or even laid off because they practice in areas or industries that are experiencing dramatic downturns. Yet, this is another reason why lawyers at small law firms may be at a distinct advantage over their counterparts in large firms. There is much less institutional inertia at a small law firm to prevent determined attorneys from rapidly shifting the focus of their practice.

Now, let’s turn our attention to how the services you offer need to shift so you can best capitalise on emerging practice areas and opportunities, ensuring that you are well positioned for what lies ahead.

Recently, my colleague Bill Josten wrote about a small Ohio-based law firm that’s executing exactly this kind of practice shift. The firm was experiencing a prolonged slowdown in their usual work due to the closure of courts and the temporary suspension of the school year that hurt one of the firm’s offices that primarily served college students. Rather than lay off the lawyers, however, the firm made the decision to pivot towards bankruptcy, a practice area that firm management believed would allow them to keep their attorneys and staff busy, if not possibly even create opportunities for growth.

And the good news is that small firms are uniquely positioned to move towards these new opportunities with true advantage.

But which practices to look at? The answer to that depends on your current areas of expertise, the needs of the communities you serve, and the expertise of your staff, as well as their ability to pivot to new areas. All of that said, there are a few practice areas that are relatively safe bets — so, let’s explore a few that our data and clients are suggesting may be growing in strength.

Lobbying

Many law firms are reporting a tremendous uptick in lobbying work in conjunction with the current crisis. With so much emergency legislation and government regulations being worked out and so many industries being impacted, firms with connections in government or those with some experience in crafting legislation or regulations could expand on that experience to carve out a potentially lucrative niche.

Real Estate

Foreclosures are largely paused right now, but many businesses still face a pressing need to address issues with their leases on existing space. Landlords too are trying to deal with the possibility that they’ll soon hold massive amounts of excess inventory, particularly in areas where brick and mortar businesses had already been on the decline.

Tax

Filing deadlines have been delayed, the federal government is floating the idea of a payroll tax holiday, and capital markets are a mess. Tax, like law, is ubiquitous — and there are a slew of reasons why the services of a tax attorney will be in high demand amid the current upheaval in markets.

Labor & Employment

Almost every labor and employment lawyer I’ve spoken to since this crisis began has told me that they’re busier than they’ve ever been. Given the uncertainty around the federal Paycheck Protection Program, this trend is likely to continue and will most likely spike again as businesses reopen. Firms practicing in the labor and employment area will find plenty of business to be had on both sides of the downturn.

Bankruptcy

Here too, the uncertainty around federal loans is leading to a potential boom in bankruptcy-related legal work. And the longer the economic shutdown continues and the more uncertainty persists around loans to help business stay afloat, the more opportunity there will be for lawyers to potentially move into bankruptcy work.

Litigation

Many litigators are reporting work slowing down, but that’s not for lack of parties wanting to litigate. With courts closed, a backlog of cases is building. And specific types of litigation matters historically spike during and immediately after a recession. After the Great Recession that began in 2008, for example, federal courts saw dramatic spikes in a variety of matter types, such as foreclosures, consumer credit actions, truth-in-lending claims, fraud, claims involving the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act all saw large spikes in the number of matters filed. There is also a strong potential for class action suits against employers for their responses to coronavirus, as well as insurance disputes, and malpractice claims against doctors and healthcare facilities.

In short, attorneys will have many opportunities to win business in this coming “new normal.” The immediate challenge is identifying which practice areas are right for you and your firm to pursue, and then building and then executing a plan to move in that direction. More specifically, to create that revised strategic plan, be sure that you:

  • Identify the practices you want to move toward. It may be one of the areas I listed, or it may be something else entirely. But you need to make a choice about your direction.
  • Consider what you need to learn. Many states have relaxed rules around online CLE offerings, and email inboxes are being bombarded with offers for webinars. Some providers offer checklists on how to intake clients for different types of matters or even what steps you need to complete to handle a new type of matter. The biggest challenge here might just be figuring out where to start looking.
  • Commit the time and resources. Adding to your practice area offerings is going to take an investment of time and money. But if you identify the right opportunities and fully commit to pursuing them, the payoff will more than offset that investment.

There is no doubt that a lot of lawyers are hurting right now as their practices suffer. But those who will be hurt worst in this crisis are those who fail to adapt.

Small law firm practitioners have a unique opportunity to utilise their resilience and agility to pivot in this new normal and strongly position themselves for what lies ahead.

The author of this article is Mark Haddad, General Manager — Small Law Firm Segment at Thomson Reuters. Mark’s article first appeared over at Legal Executive Institute, the Thomson Reuters publication.

The Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute brings together people from across the legal industry to ignite conversation and debate, make sense of the latest events and trends, and provide guidance as you confront the opportunities and challenges that these changes present.

The site features blog commentary, legal news analysis, interviews with industry leaders, videos and podcasts offering keen insight into the profession of law and the legal marketplace from members of law firms, corporate legal departments, government and academia.

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