7 Practice Trends To Watch For In 2015 In California

Jan 30, 2015 by 0

Home to 15 major sports teams, 55 electoral votes, and the only governor to be elected during two different epochs, the large swath of land known as California is difficult to reconcile as one legal entity because of its expansive and decentralized power base that spreads 500 miles from San Diego to San Francisco. Palo Alto and San Francisco are a mere 33 miles apart on the 101—aptly named for the minutes it takes to travel that span—and they could not be more different. Instead of focusing on cities or regions as a whole, I’ve decided to introduce the seven most important practice trends to watch out for in 2015 throughout California, and what these trends mean for you based on your class year.

California is home to some of the biggest titans of IP law, from Morgan Chu in Orange County to Matthew Powers on Redwood Shores. With Chu approaching the age of 65, and Powers still establishing his firm following his split with Weil, the IP landscape could look very different in a year.

Intellectual Property

The largest impetus for change in Patent Litigation will come from the fallout of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Alice Corp., along with other changes in law favoring accused infringers. The decision has slowed IP work for numerous firms as original complaint filings fell by 40% from 2013 to 2014. As a result, lateral opportunities for IP lit work tapered off in the second half of 2014, particularly in Northern California. Ten percent less Patent Lit jobs were opened in California in 2014, of which 60% were posted in the first half of the year.

Those with Electrical Engineering degrees need not fret; the market remains strong for them, with 35 opportunities in California alone right now and likely many more as the year progresses.

With five office openings in Los Angeles, the market for Patent Lit lawyers is only going to expand as these firms seek to expand their reach to Silicon Beach, the upstart Silicon Valley spinoff that is home to numerous startups including Snapchat and Hulu.

Despite lower price margins, California reigns supreme in Patent Prosecution because its multitude of major markets allows big firms such as Wilson Sonsini, Orrick and MoFo to obtain cross referral business from tech clients and to secure residual business from spinoffs of those clients. While Patent Litigation tapers off, Patent Prosecution will most likely remain steady. From 2013 to 2014 there was a negligible 4% increase in the number of Patent Prosecution openings in Am Law 100 firms. Q4 alone accounted for 30% of these openings, indicating that while price pressures remain, prosecution opportunities will remain available in 2015.

Patent Prosecution will remain an IP boutique mainstay, but the division of work will be spread to a select few large firms that can accommodate flexible fee structures and possess institutional advantages to accommodate the practices.

What this means for you:

Entry Level attorneys should not be dissuaded by any slowdowns in hiring. Patent litigation is still considered one of the largest hiring areas for big firms in California. If you have a technical background and are considering which area to specialize in, it’s best to make the decision based on your interests. Bear in mind, prosecution attorneys generally bill fewer hours, but of course that’s a double-edged sword, as compensation is generally lower.

If you’re a mid-level IP attorney with a strong technical degree in electronic arts, you can expect a good level of lateral opportunities to remain open in 2015. Life sciences and chemistry opportunities will be more limited so if you find one that appeals to you, it’s likely worth seizing that opportunity.

For senior attorneys, as litigation tightens, so too will opportunities to elevate into partnership for senior IP litigators. If you haven’t yet developed a book of business and your firm has an up or out policy, it might be a good year to consider an alternative platform that will give you a runway to move up or remain as counsel. Likewise, prosecution opportunities are scarce for senior associates due to the fee pressure, so a similarly situated prosecution attorney might wish to consider a boutique firm that can better accommodate the practice.

Technology Transactions

In the wake of Sony’s enormous blunder—releasing Jack and Jill, among other things—we will likely see a moderate expansion in Data Privacy and a rapid expansion in Technology Transaction practices in California.

Technology Transactions has been one of the hottest areas for lateral opportunities over the last six months. Firms are recognizing the need to develop the service and are pushing new associates into this space, which has cut down on the need for junior laterals from the class of 2013 or below. Still, firms remain hungry for talented mid-levels with more than two years of experience. The need for attorneys accelerated in the fourth quarter, which accounted for more than half of the opportunities for Tech Transaction attorneys. Nearly all of these opportunities sought mid-level attorneys.

The demand for Tech Transaction attorneys is mostly localized to the Bay Area with high-end M&A practices looking for tech transaction associates to handle M&A support, as well as firms looking for pure IP transaction roles to oversee licensing, join ventures and other IP-related agreements. Currently demand has outpaced supply and this trend should continue into 2015, allowing lateral associates to cherry pick their firm.

Data Privacy practices are also expanding steadily among firms in California. Not long ago, many of these practices were concentrated in DC with firms like Covington, Hogan Lovells, and Venable leading the charge.

Now the majority of Am Law 100 firms are devoting time and effort into developing privacy practices. Among high-rate platforms, we’ve seen many fold these groups into their tech transactions practices, while other more flexible rate firms like DLA Piper and Mintz Levin have established independent practices. For the latter, many of these opportunities tend to be less geographic-focused, as we’ve seen privacy openings in the past year from these firms stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. From 2013 to 2014 alone, there was a 400% increase in the number of Data Privacy opportunities, and this trend of growth is likely to continue through 2015 — just ask Sony.

What this means for you:

For Entry-level attorneys, if you like mobility, data privacy is a good practice to consider. Almost every opportunity we posted in 2014 offered the candidate their choice of office, from California to New York. Just bear in mind, these practices are still very much in their infancy so opportunities to later transfer platforms will be sporadic. If you have a technical degree but do not want to practice IP litigation or prosecution, you may want to consider tech transactions, which has the added benefit of generally providing you with more exit opportunities.

If you have less than five years of experience, the world is your oyster in 2015. Even if you’re a strong corporate associate looking to retool into this practice, several top firms have expressed a willingness to accommodate the transition. Just be aware that these practices can be tougher to make partner in, particularly if the firm’s Technology Transaction group primarily focuses on M&A support.

The market has been very tight for senior tech transactions associates as of late, with very few firms even willing to accept senior laterals with class cuts looking to transfer firms. As noted above, it can also be a difficult practice to build business so if you’re approaching the push-out period with low prospects for partnership, it might be advisable to begin considering alternative exit options, including in-house opportunities.

Litigation

Continuing its mercurial trajectory, litigation will continue its comeback in a not quite Aggasian fashion. Filings in securities and business litigation declined for the third straight year in 2014, marking its lowest level since 2008. However, opportunities for lateral litigation associates in California actually increased from 129 in 2013 to 212 in 2014.

These numbers are still below recession peak levels, which has accounted for the competitiveness in the lateral market, but recent months have shown some positive signs. In Q4, we saw a slight uptick in commercial litigation opportunities for junior associates, while mid-level securities litigation and white-collar opportunities have come back in spades, primarily in Northern California but also with top Vault 10 practices in Orange County and LA.

In the past month alone there were nine new mid-level securities openings within top firms in California. This correlates with stricter enforcement of FCPA-related investigations, as well as an increase of IPO related litigation arising from IPOs in 2013 – a year in which companies based in California led the country in IPO activity. Given the lag between these dates, along with the influx of 2014 IPOs, particularly among tech companies in the Bay Area, it’s likely we will see even more securities suits filed in 2015.

What this means for you:

For Entry-level associates, firms have been pushing fewer associates into these practices compared with prior years, but it still drives a large bulk of revenue for most Am Law firms. If you have a passion for litigation, high-stakes securities and other specialized litigation demand is still robust enough to warrant entering the field.

Mid-level associates have more luck, as top practices are seemingly all looking to expand their bench in securities and investigations work, giving you significant leverage in the market in 2015.

While litigation opportunities are healthy for mid-levels, senior roles have been meager, and it’s still a fairly a difficult climate for making partner. Considering your exit options in the next year is not a bad move if you’re reaching the up-or-out date.

Corporate

Corporate practices continue to shine with the intensity of a thousand suns—or 2.2 Polarises—particularly for mid-levels. As of December, there were 288 IPOs on US exchanges, representing a 54% increase in capital over 2013. The lateral market reflected this activity, with a surge in Securities and Capital Markets openings in 2014. Securities and Capital Market openings rose 143% from 147 in 2013, to 358 in 2014. The Bay area, in particular, posted the majority of these opportunities, as PE and VC-backed exits drove US IPO activity, accounting for 72% of US IPOs by value and 63% by number. This trend should continue with a strong pipeline of over 100 companies already in place and ready to list in 2015, 60 of which are expected to go public with a collective valuation of $22 billion in Q1.

M&A has also surged in 2014, eclipsing the level achieved in each of the last five years. This is likely due to low interest rates which continued to make it easier for companies to borrow, leaving a lot of cash on company balance sheets, allowing companies to use M&A as a way to continue growing

In 2014, 358 new M&A opportunities were created. Of those 358, 204 (57%) were either pure M&A or practices involving a blend of M&A and other corporate disciplines.

Interest rates are expected to rise slightly in 2015 as the economy continues to rebound. Despite this, M&A opportunities should continue to flourish both in Northern and Southern California, particularly for mid-level associates, where demand still far exceeds supply.

Other corporate areas including Private Equity and Venture Capital Funds are showing signs of strong growth for the upcoming year. The demand for the two far outpaced the supply and grew significantly from 17 in California in 2013 to 33 in 2014, a 94% increase! Firms will allocate more junior associates into these specialties in 2015 and demand will be high for mid-level associates with PE or VC experience.

Finance also began to make a comeback in late 2014, particularly among top Private Equity platforms with strong debt finance practices like Kirkland, Proskauer, and Goodwin Procter.

What this means for you:

Junior associates will have options due to increasing demand. Second-year associates that have been seeking new lateral opportunities in vain for the past few months will become very marketable in 2015 as firms look to re-bolster their lineups following post-bonus attrition.

Mid-level associates with a class year between 2009 – 2012 are very marketable. Demand still far exceeds supply for mid-level Corporate associates across all areas, giving them considerable options in the market in 2015.

We’ve actually seen a surprisingly large number of senior associate openings in 2014. 2014 yielded 121 openings while 2013 sported only 50. With the economy still growing and corporate work thriving, this anomaly may continue in 2015. Partnership prospects will also likely remain strongest in Corporate practices.

Real Estate

Six years after some Am Law 100 firms were considering shedding their entire Real Estate Practice, demand for both transactional and finance Real Estate associates has never been higher. Junior associates have become slightly commoditized, while mid-level associates are in high demand and will have their pick of lateral destinations in 2015.

L.A. cornered the Real Estate lateral market in 2014, accounting for 25 of the 89 total Real Estate associate opportunities in California. As a whole, 64% more lateral opportunities were listed from 2013 to 2014.

While L.A. was the pinnacle of Real Estate opportunities in 2014, the rapid ascendance of tech companies has also given rise to a significant Commercial Real Estate boom in the Bay Area, with firms like Paul Hastings, Wilson Sonsini, and Gibson Dunn servicing top tech clients’ expansion of massive data centers and campuses to house new talent. The data backs this assessment as 21 new openings were listed in 2014, 15 of which were announced in the second half of the year.

Real Estate Finance has also expanded under this umbrella and will continue to grow as long as interest rates are low. Many expect rates to climb toward the end of the year, but not likely to levels that would significantly impact lateral demand.

The Transactional Real Estate lateral market will continue to flourish with the continued expansion of tech companies. Additionally, the advent of programs like Eb-5 (which permits foreign investors making real estate investments of $500,000+ to obtain US visas) will bolster the market as well.

What this means for you:

Junior associates were thrust into a market that was unprepared for the real estate boom in 2013. By 2014, firms had corrected course and assigned a number of incoming 2013 JD associates to their 2014 real estate associate class. Accordingly, there have not been many opportunities in the past six months for 2013 associates. The lateral floodgates should open up in 2015 following post-bonus attrition. If you’re an entry-level associate, this is still a terrific practice to enter, but activity may level off in the next 1 to 2 years.

Mid-level associates are the belle of the ball as demand still far exceeds supply for their services. However, 2015 might be the last year of unfettered lateral opportunity for mid-level Real Estate associates before 2012 JDs gain comfort with leading deals. For the time being, both private practice and in-house markets are their playground.

While not prevalent, there are several highly attractive senior associate roles currently open with top real estate practices in both Southern and Northern California. These are sporadic but given the market it’s likely that number will expand into 2015. Several of our clients are also still prioritizing making up partners in this practice.

Labor and Employment

From San Diego to Crescent City (maybe not that far), Labor and Employment will remain active among all levels along California’s 840 miles of coastline. This steady activity is in part because 2014 marked the seventh straight year of increases in federal wage and hour lawsuits filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Experts attribute the steady increase in the number of these cases to a variety of factors, including: restrictions on class actions leading to more single and multi-plaintiff lawsuits, increased debate of minimum wage refocusing attention on wage and hour laws, as well as increased ambiguity in the FLSA’s interpretation.

Unsurprisingly, this correlated with a noticeable flurry of lateral opportunities in both Northern and Southern California including 82 opportunities in Southern California, and 47 in Northern California. Additionally, the total openings rose again from 90 in 2013 to 129 in 2014, a 43% increase.

With no sign of these factors going away anytime soon, 2015 should be another buoyant year for lateral opportunities in Labor and Employment.

What this means for you:

If you are a junior associate who enjoys Litigation but would like a specialized field with more marketability, this is a terrific field to enter. Exit options are also strong as companies are increasingly hiring L&E attorneys as in-house counsel to provide employment counseling.

With seven straight years of growth in this field, mid-level associates will continue to be highly coveted in the coming year. As more firms grow their L&E practices, your options to move up to a higher caliber practice should also be significant in 2015, as more and more firms are seeking mid-level L&E attorneys, particularly with wage/hour class action experience.

L&E is a difficult practice to make partner in. Senior associate roles have been sporadic, but those that have been open have been attractive, including some that offer counsel titles with long-term security.

Energy

California has historically been a leader on clean energy investments, due in large part to high insolation, declining renewable costs, and a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which requires that 33% of California’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. As corporations moved money off the sideline in 2014, investments in clean tech and renewable project financings expanded along the coast, further strengthening firms with strong Energy practices like Latham, Orrick, and Akin Gump.

Energy work will continue to flourish in 2015 as renewable projects continue to garner public support and Energy practices will continue to expand particularly for junior associates. From 2013 to 2014 alone, California realized a 200% increase in the number of associate openings in Energy practices.

What this means for you:

Top-flight Energy work is still in its relative infancy in California (at least compared with the Oil/Gas practices out of Texas). As such, the supply of talented junior associates in the market is still behind demand. A couple clients have actually approached us willing to retool junior associates into this practice. Opportunities should remain strong in 2015, but will be limited to several firms.

If you’re a mid-level associate with Energy experience, your skills will be very marketable in 2015. Bear in mind, if your experience has been predominantly oil and gas projects, your skills will be viewed as slightly less transferable in California, where most practices focus on renewables.

There were only a few prominent senior associate openings in 2014 and not much beyond that. Without a book of business, it’s a difficult practice to lateral to as asenior associate unless a specific need opens up. Exit options, however, should be strong in 2015 as major energy and power companies continue to invest in new projects along the coast. We currently have a couple in-house opportunities open in Northern California for senior associates with this experience.

The lateral market is multilayered to say the least; a single question can engender ten more and so on through a recursive and exponential chain of questions before you get to a tangible answer. The question “is my practice doing well?” is simply too vague for any respectable answer to be given without giving context to class year and a myriad of other variables. If you have any questions about the market, your practice, lateral opportunities, or general inquiries, my colleagues and I at Lateral Link would be happy to help.