The year 2017 will be remembered for change. From federal changes after the first full year of the Trump administration, to the gubernatorial election of Phil Murphy and the proposed changes he will make when he is officially sworn in as the state’s 56th governor this month.
With these changes comes an air of uncertainty – new relationships may have to be formed, and new questions may arise as to how change will affect the status quo. At the same time, new doors open and unique opportunities arise, affording people the chance to accomplish things they never would have expected.
This rings true for all industries in New Jersey, but those keeping a particularly close eye on change are individuals in the field of law. For them, it is not only essential to stay on top of, say, regulatory changes that may affect their clients, but it is imperative to be proactive in this regard, getting out ahead of change, projecting forward and reading the tea-leaves.
And, while there are new opportunities for legal work on the horizon, many areas of law traditionally practiced in New Jersey continue to remain strong.
Deirdre Moore, Morristown office managing partner of Fox Rothschild LLP, says there is a lot of work currently going on with tying up property acquisitions – an area that has always been popular in New Jersey.
“Because of our location, we have national developers vying for development opportunities,” Moore says. “We are seeing a large uptick in industrial property interest, particularly with the redevelopment of old sites. Because of the size of the state and the land that is left, there is a lot of competition.”
“The increase in real estate work is a direct result of an improving real estate market here in New Jersey, which has rebounded following the recession [of 2007-2009],” adds Archer Law COO Stacey Sinclair. She says that other strong practice areas at her firm include environmental and related regulatory work, and work in the transactional areas, including general corporate representation, mergers and acquisitions, finance and intellectual property.
“Environmental [law] has historically been a strong source of work for us here in New Jersey, as state and federal governments continue to expand and refine their legislation and regulation of the field. Also, an improving economy [in New Jersey] has resulted in an uptick in new business startups, expansions and restructurings,” Sinclair says. “The proliferation of the internet and electronic commerce has given way to a sharp upswing in intellectual property issues, as businesses grapple with the most effective and secure way to manage, store, share and protect one of their greatest assets – their intellectual property.”
While he states there is a lot of work being done in healthcare, Doug Zeltt, Princeton office managing partner of Fox Rothschild LLP, also cites intellectual property, particularly in the biopharmaceutical space, as a popular practice area.
Despite the closing and redevelopment of many old pharmaceutical sites, there is still a lot of work being done in the pharmaceutical industry at existing sites, and at universities such as Rowan and Rutgers.
Additionally, the Supreme Court decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of California in June, which dealt with personal jurisdiction of out-of-state defendants, should drive a lot of pharmaceutical litigation back to New Jersey, notes Eileen Oakes Muskett, Atlantic City office managing partner of Fox Rothschild LLP.
A post describing the case by the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute states that, “[the decision] might lead to more lawsuits being filed in New Jersey state courts because of [the] state’s plaintiff-friendly laws and the fact that many major businesses call New Jersey home.”
Entirely new areas of practice will also form in the future due to potential legislative changes at the state level. In fact, many firms in New Jersey are already preparing for the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana.
“I think that the legalization of marijuana will become a reality in the coming year, or, if not, certainly substantial groundwork will be laid out, which will open up a lot of [opportunities],” Muskett says. “[Fox Rothschild] actually has a cannabis practice and offices in Denver. We already have attorneys in our firm that specialize in the nuances and issues that are confronted by business people in this area, which seems to be on the horizon for New Jersey.”
Muskett adds that legislation focusing on causes of action and claims for wage disparity issues could also make another appearance after being previously vetoed by outgoing-Governor Chris Christie.
“Something that I have recommended to my clients is that when you are doing your analysis in terms of what [someone’s] salary should be in the coming year, just do an across-the-board analysis to see if you have any wage disparity that jumps out at you, that can’t be justified based on something concrete such as years of experience or particularized knowledge,” she explains.
Aside from the impending effects of legislative changes, technological advancements have also created new areas of practice, and altered the ways in which lawyers go about their work.
“Data privacy and client confidentiality is paramount for our firm, but it is equally so for our clients. One of the areas that we, as lawyers, get involved in is helping people respond to data breaches. However, moving back, we clearly work with our clients to make sure they have the systems, policies and protocols in place to make sure breaches don’t occur in the first place,” says Zeltt, who adds that this type of work is particularly important and prevalent in the medical and health industry with private health information. This forces one to be even more diligent in protecting sensitive documents, but, at the same time, makes things much more efficient.
“Technology has made our jobs so much easier,” Muskett says. “By the beginning of , in every county in New Jersey [attorneys] will be required to e-file their documents. We welcome this with open arms because, while federal courts have had this system forever, [many attorneys] in New Jersey are still in the dark ages, with having to paper file everything.”
Not only is this a matter of convenience, but the change allows attorneys to more efficiently work with their files and better defend their clients. Instead of having a team of attorneys sift through boxes upon boxes of legal documents – a process which used to take months – now, key information and specific sections of a document can be found quickly through digital searches, and attorneys can even electronically sign documents anywhere they are. This all helps to improve the work-life balance for attorneys, an issue that many law firms are trying to improve upon.
Keeping with the theme of change, the reasons why a client chooses a specific law firm also seem to be shifting.
“Clients are far more savvy, selective and demanding about what they are looking for from a lawyer, as they should be,” says Jill Cohen, partner at Eckert Seamans. “As a result, firms in general have become more creative about attracting clients with different billing structures and permitting alternate fee arrangements, rather than the traditional hourly method. Together, clients and lawyers seem flexible about finding solutions that are mutually beneficial for the firm and give the clients options that work best for them.”
Technology has helped in this regard too, connecting lawyers and clients through mediums such as Skype and FaceTime, which adds flexibility and fosters more collaborative, creative relationships between the two sides.
“I think that the culture is changing and lawyers are more approachable for off-the-cuff questions or gut-checks when issues arise,” Cohen continues. “I have seen many legal problems for my clients that could have been avoided or mitigated if clients called me earlier, particularly when it comes to committing positions to writing. In short, employers should find a reasonable, approachable lawyer and keep that person in the loop as business needs arise and change.”
In terms of overall advice for businesses to stay out of the courtroom, Zeltt draws a comparison to the changing dynamics of the healthcare industry, with promoting wellness to begin with, as opposed to just treating illness after it happens. It is important to train your employees and have the proper protocols and employment policies in place so that you have something to point to later on that keeps you out of litigating a particular issue. “The analogy is the same for conducting your business – do it right the first time,” he says.