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For the sixth consecutive year, intellectual property heads the list of “red hot” practice areas while merger spinoffs and associate retention are among the key issues and trends affecting law firms, according to consultant Robert Denney’s annual compilation of “What’s Hot and What’s Not in the Legal Profession.” Published by Wayne, Pa.-based Robert Denney Associates Inc., a legal management and marketing consultancy, the 12th annual edition of the report is based on information compiled from sources around the world. Intellectual property once again tops the list of “red hot” practice areas, this time joined by technology and e-commerce and a return appearance by labor and employment. Litigation fell from red-hot to hot, with Denney predicting that construction litigation will begin to “heat up again.” Also falling to “hot” are telecommunications, energy and real estate. Public-offering representation fell from “red hot” all the way to “cool.” “So many dot-coms have crashed,” Denney said. “And with Nasdaq and the Dow Jones dropping, these startups and the venture capital companies that back them have cut back on public offerings.” Other practices listed in the “hot” category are family law, estate planning, sports and entertainment, alternative dispute resolution, securities, mergers and acquisitions, corporate, cyberlaw, immigration, licensing and joint ventures, tax and gaming. Bankruptcy and REITs are listed as “getting hot” while IPOs are joined by health care, insurance defense, banking and environmental in the “cool” category. Mergers, partnering, lateral hires and diversification were among top firm strategies this past year. Denney said split-ups and spin-offs have become more popular as after-merger movement. “Sometimes those become more significant than the actual merger,” Denney said. “You have a group that just doesn’t want to go along with the rest of their partners [who are merging with another firm], and they go somewhere else.” Diversifications — forming separate entities to provide non-legal services — are hot despite American Bar Association problems with multidisciplinary practices. Denney said he also sees more firms focusing on pro bono work, though most are still lacking in their commitment. “I found that a bit surprising because of all the focus on billables,” Denney said. “At some firms, there is this trend to do more for the community. And it’s not just telling lawyers to go out and do something, it’s policed by management. But most firms still don’t do this so I call it a countertrend.” Other hot trends and issues identified by Denney include associate and partner retention, longer partnership track, centralized management, non-billable time, client-focused strategic planning, succession planning, shorter firm names, a larger number of law school applications, non-lawyer managers and declining profitability. In terms of the associate retention issue, Denney said firms have no one to blame but themselves for losing top young talent. In his report, he writes that retention does not just revolve around giving associates more money. “It’s also about training and developing young lawyers and treating them like human beings, not fungible assets.” Denney said while foreign firms and most corporations have learned this, U.S. law firms have not. “I think it’s a mistaken understanding of how to increase the bottom line,” Denney said. “But partners have to invest non-billable time into training and developing these young people. In the end, they’ll be better lawyers and happier people. And they’ll still be with the firm.” Denney said the declining profitability should send up a red flag for many firms, especially if predictions of a spiraling economy ring true.

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