When it comes to the 2022 law trends to watch and legal industry outlook, Matt Feeney, firm chair for Snell & Wilmer, says it best: “In this economic environment, it’s difficult to predict the future with any degree of certainty.”
But despite the unknowns and volatility experienced by so many industries over the last couple of years, Feeney anticipates the next year to continue to be strong for transactional practices. Corporate, commercial finance, and real estate practice groups, for example, have collectively experienced record-setting years, largely due to pent-up demand for transactions in the marketplace, according to Feeney. And, this is simply a sample of what’s ahead.
READ ALSO: Ranking Arizona: Top 10 law firms for 2021
As 2021 transitions to our rearview, Feeney utilizes his extensive expertise, spanning nearly 40 years and multiple areas of law (from transactions in securities offerings to mergers and acquisitions —and more) to see what legal trends are on the horizon.
Az Business Leaders: What trends do you see in law moving toward the new year (and beyond) nationally?
Matt Feeney: There are several trends that have developed nationally since the onset of the pandemic, including:
Law firms with strong IT infrastructure have recognized their people can effectively serve clients from remote locations.
Most law firms have recognized that they do not need as much physical space as they once did. Therefore, as their leases expire, they are looking to meaningfully reduce their office footprint, which presents significant expense-saving opportunities. Snell & Wilmer, for example, will reduce its Phoenix footprint from 170,000-115,000 square feet in the fall of 2022.
Law firms are struggling to fully understand what the practice of law will look like in a post-pandemic world, particularly as it relates to balancing in-office and remote work.
Given the strong demand for transactional work throughout the country, many law firms are struggling to attract and retain the legal talent to perform this work. Some national law firms have created “talent centers,” sometimes in cities in which the firms do not have an office that is servicing local work. These firms have concluded that attorneys in the talent centers can support their national clients remotely. Other national firms have hired attorneys to work for them on a completely virtual basis. This has led to increased salaries for associates in many cities, similar to the salary increases we saw in the late 1990s before the dot-com bust of the early 2000s.
Litigation practices will likely see increased activity in 2022 as courts around the country continue to reopen, resulting in a greater number of trials.
ABL: How about trends in law closer to home in Arizona? Are there any differentiators?
MF: Arizona is experiencing the same trends in law that are occurring nationally, although Arizona (specifically Phoenix) has not yet seen a great influx of national law firms.
ABL: What challenges and/or victories did you witness within your industry related to the pandemic?
MF: Law firms with strong IT infrastructure have recognized that their people can effectively serve their clients from remote locations. In my view, this is the greatest “victory” within the legal industry related to the pandemic. And, again, as previously mentioned, another important ancillary benefit of the effectiveness of remote work is an industry-wide reassessment of the nature of physical office space.
Pandemic-related challenges for the legal industry include:
• Most, if not all, law firms have made the safety of their people the number-one priority during the pandemic. For most law firms, this has meant the thoughtful adoption of COVID protocols. Staying on top of COVID-related developments, both from a medical and legal perspective, has been a challenge.
• Although many law firms have achieved success during the pandemic, despite a primarily remote environment, firms that entered the pandemic without a strong culture or sense of identity found that the connections among their people have been a challenge to maintain.
• As noted above, talent attraction and retention are challenges given current legal demand, particularly in the transactional arena. As those of us who have been around for some time know, the overall economy and the legal industry experience down cycles from time to time. The demand for legal services will lessen (or perhaps not grow quite as robustly) at some point in the future.
ABL: In what ways has the pandemic strengthened your profession and you personally?
MF: I think the profession has been strengthened in unforeseen ways. For example, many of us have realized that, although a personal meeting is usually preferable, Zoom meetings can be quite effective and efficient. During the course of any given year, I personally visit 10-15 of our key clients, which usually involves one or two days on the road for each client. In 2020 and 2021, I completed a significantly larger number of client visits via Zoom. Clients appear to enjoy this approach.
Working remotely has also provided our people with needed flexibility during unusual times. For example, remote schooling presented challenges for parents that could not have been addressed effectively without a remote work option.
From a personal perspective, the early months of the pandemic permitted my wife, Michele, and I to live together with our five children, two sons-in-law, one granddaughter, and three family friends. My children range in age from 19 to 34. It was a blessing to spend that type of time with my children at this stage in our and their lives.
ABL: What practice groups at Snell & Wilmer do you expect to be busiest in 2022 and why?
MF: I expect our transactional practices to continue to be very busy during 2022. This would include the following practices: Commercial Finance, Corporate & Securities, and Real Estate. We also expect our Tax and Intellectual Property practice groups—which often directly support our other transactional practices—to be busy during 2022.
Although our litigation practice has performed well during the pandemic, I expect that practice will be busier during 2022 as courts around the country continue to reopen, resulting in a greater number of trials.
ABL: What role has mentorship played in your law career? How have you used what you have learned to help new generations of legal professionals?
MF: Mentorship has played an important role in my legal career. Snell & Wilmer focuses on relationships, both internal and external. I learned best during my career by working closely with excellent attorneys who are also good people. There are too many to name, although our former Chair, John Bouma, had a strong influence on my professional development.
We are in a relationship business, both externally and internally. I stress this to our new attorneys. We drive this point home at firm Town Halls and Retreats, and we try our best to model respect and collegiality within the firm.