Ever since Matthew Feeney started his legal career in the 1980s, he’s been met with relentless disruption.

“When I started 35 years ago, the big technological innovation was Federal Express,” says the firm chair for Snell & Wilmer. “Older lawyers at the time said the notion that you could send documents overnight and be on the phone the next day had made the practice crazy.”

Now, of course, technology has made communication instantaneous.

“Some lawyers believe they need to respond within 10 minutes, which oftentimes does not serve the client’s or the lawyer’s interest,” Feeney says. “Most often, good legal advice requires reflection.”

Constantly evolving technology, changing regulatory systems and global competition for clients are pushing law firms into a race to keep up with the changes and with the competition. But the evolution has also given law firms the opportunity to re-imagine the legal industry and create new practice areas to serve a demanding market.

Az Business Leaders sat down with Feeney to get his take on how the legal industry will evolve in 2019 and beyond.

ABL: What do you expect to be the hot practice areas for 2019?

MF: We are pretty bullish for 2019. A lot of people are bullish on the economy in general, but there is this underlying current that we know good times cannot last forever. With that caveat, the hot areas for 2019 will continue to be transactional-related areas. Where we are seeing a lot of good growth is in real estate, corporate and securities (mergers and acquisitions, dispositions of businesses, raising capital) and intellectual property. If I look at our 11 primary practice areas, the ones that have the strongest growth are in the transaction area and I expect that to continue in 2019.

ABL: What practice areas do you see as having the greatest potential for growth in 2019?

MF: If you include practice areas that are small and are growing at 30 percent or 40 percent, there are a couple I would put in that area. One would be cybersecurity and privacy. We hired a couple attorneys from the Department of Justice — James Melendres, who was the lead prosecutor in the Gen. David Petraeus case; and Aloke Chakravarty, who was the lead prosecutor in the Boston Marathon bombing case — who both have a lot of experience with cyber and both have hit the ground running. Other areas  where we see growth, but aren’t a big part of our practice yet, are technology-related, such as batteries — as boring as batteries sound, they are becoming more and more important in the energy sector; cryptocurrency, where we have built a fairly strong practice; and we also have a strong practice in autonomous vehicles, which is an area that will continue to grow with mind-boggling implications. 

ABL: Is there an area people should watch in 2019?

MF: Opportunity Zones. This was a fairly small piece of the Tax Act in December and we’re finding that clients are now starting to understand. States designate zones, people invest in those zones and they get enormous tax benefits. We have been holding seminars throughout our region and I know that’s going to be a hot area in 2019.

ABL: What has been the biggest impact of technology on the legal profession?

MF: The speed of the practice. Everything moves much quicker, which isn’t always a good thing when it comes to law. On the positive side, technology has made the practice of law more transparent to clients, giving them a better understanding of the legal business, including rates and capabilities. Clients are recognizing that there are great lawyers throughout the country, not just in large east and west coast cities. As younger lawyers come up into leadership positions as general counsels for companies — they are the ones who give us much of our work — they are much less interested in geography and more interested in capability and cost. If they think there is a good lawyer in Phoenix, Arizona who can do the job for 60 percent of what it costs to have it done in New York, they’re much more inclined to go to Phoenix than they were 20 or 30 years ago. That is a trend we are seeing in spades. And technology has allowed that to happen.

ABL: How do you effectively manage a law firm when technology and the business environment are evolving so rapidly?

MF: The way we see our firm is that we always have to be looking for the next thing and you have to find a way to invest resources in that thing. Google has something called “moonshots,” interesting projects that may turn into something or may not. You have to be willing and able to make investments in a lot of areas. If you keep doing business the way you’ve always done it, the world is going to pass you by.

ABL: What is the most positive aspect of being a part of the legal profession heading into 2019?

MF: The same thing that was the most positive aspect of being a part of the legal profession when I began 35 years ago: It’s a great profession, always interesting, you meet good people and you have an opportunity to promote the rule of law in your work. My oldest daughter is a Maricopa County prosecutor and one of my sons has his eye on law school.  They’ve grown up watching their mom and dad enjoying practicing law and I think that is a bit part of what attracts them to the law.

ABL: Are there any areas of law school education that you think need to be improved?

MF: I’m not saying this because they are in our backyard, but ASU gets it. That’s why their rankings are going up and they are attracting good people. The biggest beef against law schools for a long time is that they graduated lawyers who didn’t have a good sense of what it meant to be a lawyer. They weren’t getting enough hands-on experiences in law school. ASU has the Arizona Legal Center, which provides legal assistance to the public. More than 20 percent of the incoming class at ASU Law School will be volunteering there. Those students will be meeting clients, will be paired with practicing lawyers and will be getting practical, hands-on experience while still in school. Anything a law school can do to have people graduate who appreciate the complexities of relationships with clients is a great thing.

AB: What is the biggest issue the legal industry should look out for in 2019?

MF: Complacency. Any law firm that is complacent now is in trouble. The world – and the legal industry – is changing very quickly.  If you stand still you fall behind very quickly. Clients have a right to expect that their lawyers will deliver their legal services and their counsel in an efficient, cost-effective manner.

It’s important to advance the next generation of leaders in law firms.  In five years, the millennials will be the majority demographic in law firms. Younger lawyers need to know that they have a path to leadership.

Finally, I believe that relationship-based law firms, those that sincerely care about their clients and their problems, will continue to thrive. Law firms that are transactional-based, that are only interested in the next big deal or a big piece of litigation from a client, will find it more difficult to succeed in the long run. Many clients are looking to reduce the number of firms they use and, in doing so, are looking for firms that are relationship-based versus transactional-based.  We look for excellent lawyers who are good people, who know how to build relationships and who are interested in doing so.  If we get that right, we’re going to continue to do well.