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9 practice areas that can help young attorneys recession-proof their careers, according to top lawyers and recruiters

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In the wave of imminent lawsuits over IP, insurance, and commercial disputes, litigation is one area that legal experts say will do well.

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  • Attorneys in bankruptcy, data privacy, and healthcare are among those in highest demand, especially with the sea changes caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  • Five lawyers and two recruiters shed light on the nine practice areas they think will boom over the next few years, and the essential skills to develop to best position yourself in the industry.
  • “The legal industry has adapted to COVID and its restrictions, and many are actually having a strong economic year despite all of the disruptions,” said legal recruiter, Larry Watanabe.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Amid the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, navigating the rocky job market can be tough.

The legal industry certainly wasn’t immune to the disruption: Many law school graduates were, and still are, stuck in a state of limbo, while top law firms pulled the trigger on pay cuts, layoffs, and furloughs, as previously reported in Business Insider.

But there are signs of optimism for current and aspiring lawyers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July that the legal industry added 1,900 jobs since the past month, continuing an upward trend that may be indicative of the industry’s growth and recovery.

“The legal industry has adapted to COVID and its restrictions, and many are actually having a strong economic year despite all of the disruptions,” said Larry Watanabe, founder of recruiting company, Watanabe Schwartz.

Business Insider spoke with five lawyers across various practice areas and two prominent recruiters on the types of law they think are smart to specialize in now, and what skills they see as crucial going in.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. Bankruptcy and insolvency

As the pandemic continues to loom over businesses nationwide, many experts think bankruptcy and insolvency lawyers will be in high demand for at least the next five years.

“With the economic consequences wrought by COVID, there has to be a day of reckoning coming,” said Brian Holland, a partner who leads the financial services practice at Lathrop GPM.

The number of new restructuring matters this year rivals that of 2008, with more businesses shutting down and creating a butterfly effect, as reported by Business Insider in March. Some big brands that have filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy include those of retailers JCPenney and J.Crew.

Holland also said that “no one likes layoffs in any industry,” and many law firms are repurposing their attorneys to meet the booming demand for insolvency work. M&A lawyers, for example, have been pulled into distressed M&A and bankruptcy work.

Read more:Students are weighing the pros and cons of virtual law school. Here’s why some are deferring, and what that means for job prospects.

2. Corporate, including M&A and private equity

Following on the tails of restructuring matters comes corporate work, especially M&A and private equity.

“Everybody’s looking at their covenants and their lending, and they want to access the market, but maybe in untraditional ways or ways they’re not used to before,” said Alisa Levin, principal of legal search group Greene-Levin-Snyder. “So that’s why a lot of these direct lenders, alternative capital providers are becoming more active now.”

Recruiter Watanabe also sees a lot of future potential in the coming months and years: “There is a lot of money on the sidelines waiting to be invested. Once COVID is settled [companies] will enter the market, creating corporate-related activity,”

If the Democratic nominees for president and vice president, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, are elected, he said, “there will be a lot of support in Silicon Valley and with the major tech markets as well.”

3. Data privacy and cybersecurity

It’s no secret that tech is playing an increasingly important role in how businesses operate, and the data privacy space was an area most cited as promising by the legal experts Business Insider spoke with.

“You will probably be very marketable because no matter what industry you’re in, cybersecurity and data protection is going to be top of mind for any company that has a customer base,” explained Caroline Tsai, chief legal officer at Western Union.

Almost every second or third job opening that Levin, a prominent recruiter who’s worked with white-shoe law firms like Cravath and Kirkland & Ellis, has seen in recent months has been related to the data privacy area, which she says is “huge.”

Read more:A virtual law firm is hiring freelance lawyers to create a Netflix-style subscription legal service that could disrupt the US legal industry

Thomas O’Donnell, division director of recruiting firm, Parker + Lynch, sees significant growth over the next decade, and Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s law firm practice group, said there’s great opportunity for younger lawyers in this practice, which was virtually nonexistent 15, 20 years ago.

“I think it’s a perfect thing for people coming up through law school and young associates to focus on because many of their older peers simply don’t know anything about it,” he said. “In a way, they get to own a practice that’s relatively nascent.”

4. Healthcare

Healthcare is, unsurprisingly, another area that industry experts think will do well over the next few years. But some think that the novel coronavirus hasn’t really changed the value of pursuing the practice to begin with.

“It was pretty much the hottest area going into COVID, and I don’t think there’s anything unique about COVID that makes it more marketable,” said Lowe.

A large part of it is the intense policy landscape of healthcare, such as patient privacy regulations and the ongoing battle over Obamacare and insurance programs. The massive, multidistrict litigation over the opioid epidemic is another example.

“There’s so many rules and regulations relating to providing healthcare services and you have so many different interested parties: the providers, the insurers, individual doctors,” he added — which means that there are ample representation opportunities for attorneys.

5. Intellectual property

Hand-in-hand with data privacy and healthcare comes intellectual property, a hot practice area that’s accelerated with the rise of telehealth services and patents in the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic.

While IP isn’t strictly limited to healthcare, it’s a sector that’s especially booming with the novel coronavirus.

IP patents are assets that “need and will be protected through legal counsel, especially in the life-sciences area, where everyone is betting high stakes on a COVID vaccine,” said legal recruiter Watanabe.

Read more: How lawyers can break into the $34.5 billion world of fintechs and land lucrative jobs at hot startups, from general counsel working at companies like Lemonade, Toast, and Stash

That said, the field is highly specialized, so it may not be for everybody.

“Most lawyers who pursue IP have some sort of technical background,” explained Lowe, the attorney from Major, Lindsey & Africa. “Given that most lawyers became lawyers because they don’t really have an interest in the technical side of things, it makes it a very narrow pool.”

He added that those with that technical knowledge can work it to their advantage.

6. Labor and employment

“With layoffs and rising unemployment, labor and employment shall remain busy for many years,” said Watanabe. “It is also a practice area that is and has proven to be recession-proof. In down markets, L&E issues always rise to the top.”

Tsai, Western Union’s GC, believes that lawyers specializing in labor and employment will be needed by businesses, no matter what industry they’re in. A grasp of what the rules and regulations are for employees and employee safety is key.

“Having a broad understanding of the applicability of different laws across the globe will be relevant, whether you’re dealing with M&A, dealing with our COVID-19 crisis,” she said.

Read more:Labor and employment attorneys are seeing a surge in business, and big firms are setting up coronavirus task forces to help clients navigate layoffs and workplace safety

7. Insurance

“The risks and dangers of the world we live in are now so varied… We all live within minutes of disaster,” said Jim Murray, the lead insurance-recovery partner at Blank Rome.

Murray explained that virtually any product a company makes is at risk. For instance, mask-manufacturing companies, if proven faulty, could be held liable for social negligence or fraud.

“Insurance will never go away so long as there’s risk in the world,” he said.

8. In-house jobs

In-house legal positions, which are typically seen as cost-savers, have actually been on the rise during recent months’ economic crunch, as first reported in Law.com. 

The in-house role is expanding to cover many areas of a company’s business, from compliance, privacy, and social and corporate governance, said Deborah Marson, the general counsel of information management company, Iron Mountain.

These aspects are all the more crucial as companies are looking to tighten spending, opting to rely on their in-house counsel instead of hiring outside law firms.

Marson suggested that knowledge of how to use big data and tech can give lawyers looking to land an in-house job a leg up, allowing them to make better-informed business strategies. She also recommends getting business in a company through an internship, rather than going straight into a law firm.

 Read more:Top law firms are delaying their first-year associate classes. Here are 3 ways law school graduates can stay on top of their game in the meantime.

“It’ll give you a real shift in mentality,” she said, especially since the “legal mindset is so differentiated from the business mindset.”

Of the various industries to find in-house jobs in, Levin said that fintech is an especially hot one to consider.

“Big Law follows the business sector. There’s no secret sauce there,” she said. “Whatever’s happening in the landscape of the business world is gonna be happening in big law too.”

9. Litigation

Litigation, especially of the white-collar variety, is likely to be on the rise in the coming months, according to experts.

“In any down market, white-collar issues gain prominence,” said Watanabe of issues like fraud and deceit. “There will be many [people] pointing at issues not handled properly through the pandemic and thus, this practice area will remain in demand.”

Lawsuits involving intellectual property, insurance, antitrust claims, and commercial disputes — such as those over trade secrets, with employees moving to other companies amid a shaky job market — are likely, too, said John Garda, a managing partner at litigation funder, Longford Capital.

General tips for success: stay flexible, seek guidance, and pursue your interests

With all the ongoing flux and uncertainty, it’s important to stay on your feet and prepare for any curveballs in your career.

“Fluidity is going to be the key to any lawyer’s success,” said recruiter Levin. “Things are changing much more rapidly than they ever have before.”

Now is also the time to pick partners’ and mentors’ brains, especially of those who are relatively younger.

“They’re getting right into the prime of their careers and are more likely to have a five-to-10 year crystal ball,” said Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Lowe. “Younger lawyers make the mistake of only talking amongst themselves. Seek advice and show initiative. No one’s going to care about your career more than you.”

Ultimately, the best thing an aspiring lawyer can do is find an area that they genuinely find interesting and are passionate about, even if it’s not “hot,” advised Parker + Lynch’s O’Donnell.

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