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40 Legal Practice Areas That Didn’t Exist 15 Years Ago

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Almost a decade ago,  Richard Susskind’s book. The End of Lawyers  predicted that many traditional lawyers, particularly solos and smalls would soon be rendered obsolete. And while Susskind wasn’t wrong — jobs in the legal sector decline steadily  every year, with a loss of 100,000 jobs predicted by November 2017 – the glass is also half full. Because despite the loss of legal jobs over the past decade, there are also at least 40 legal practice areas that didn’t exist 15 years ago that will keep lawyers busy for years to come.

Within the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing for purchase a 150-page comprehensive guide to 40 Practice Areas that Didn’t Exist 15 Years Ago (register HERE if you’d like to receive notice when the Guide is available for sale) but to start the year off on the right note, I’m posting the list with a few observations.

  1.   Moore’s Law One trend that become clear as I delved into my examination of 40 practice areas that didn’t exist 15 years ago is that it’s not all about the tech.  Nearly half of the new practice areas have evolved out of legislative and social change too.

Which made me realize that  Moore’s Law — our shorthand for the rate of change in technology – applies to legislative reform and social progress too.

 By way of example, it took almost 60 years to move from the separate by equal doctrine under Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to the elimination of segregation in schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and another 13 years to put an end to state bans on mixed race marriages in Loving v. Virginia (1967) – a total of 68 years to achieve change. Contrast that to the 30 years required to change law with respect on same sex couples – going from upholding state sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) to overturning those laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) to legalization of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  The correlation between technology progress and policy/social change is not coincidental.  With technology, news of change spreads more rapidly, and up close, is no longer as threatening. Technology also results in speedier transfer of information, which can help movements like social entrepreneurship or craft beer blossom simply by making the resources available to others how to do it. Rapid change is exciting – but it also forces lawyers to stay nimble to keep abreast of new trends and to responding to, or capitalize on the changes – or risk obsolescence.

  1. Lawyers Need Technical Expertise to Deal With Innovation – Many of the 40 new practice areas catalogued – such as 3D printing, Blockchain, Internet of Things, Algorithm Law, Biometrics, Cyberbullying, Augmented & Virtual Reality, Cybersecurity, Open Source Law and Privacy, to name a few – are so complex that to they require technical expertise and support to fully understand.  Thus, it’s common trend for firms dealing with these issues to have in-house expertise – either through their own background (e.g., programmer-turned-lawyer) or in-house information officers or software engineers.  With collaborations between lawyers and other professional experts growing increasingly common, it may be time for the legal profession to consider relaxing rules on non-lawyer partnerships to enable law firms to more easily offer hybrid services.
  2. New Practice Areas Means New Demand for Lawyers  With the rise of automation, solo lawyers handling a steady diet of generic matters like preparation of wills, corporate documents and uncontested divorce will soon go out of business. Lawyers can gussy up these services as much as they want, touting “exceptional client service” and error-free work, but the truth is that in ten years or less, most budget-minded folks are not going to trek down to an office and pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a matter that they can handle online with a couple of keystrokes.   And even today, when there are still clients able to pay for a helping of legal advice along with their paperwork, the competition is fierce.  Today, a startup can go online to sites like UpCounsel, LawKick, Avvo and others and choose from cut rate legal service providers who can set up an LLC or draft an employment handbook. But companies needing advice on setting up a lawful cannabis industry or craft beer establishment or deciding between a b-corporation or public benefit corporation won’t readily find as many lawyers capable of doing the work – which means that those lawyers who can will command higher rates.  Lawyers doing more generic consumer oriented work don’t need to jump ship and trade in a family law practice for a cybersecurity niche firm. But they can incorporate practice areas like digital assets into estate planning, social media discovery into family law, etc…to stand out from the crowd and access higher paying clients.

The list of 40 new practice areas is far from comprehensive. Some new areas or developments – like social media compliance, the cloud, Patriot Act issue or IP developments have moved so quickly that there are already plenty of resources available.  And of course, in every existing practice area – family law, bankruptcy, corporate formations, etc…new legal issues emerge all the time. I tried to focus the list not just on law that didn’t exist 15 years ago, but also innovations in technology, regulatory reform and social policy that didn’t exist then either.  If there are other areas you would have included, let me know in the comments.

For 2018, make it your resolution to learn something about a couple of these new practice areas and figure out whether they can help your firm not just survive, but thrive in the years to come.

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