For more than a decade, the provenance of white-collar defense work has been shifting away from boutiques to large corporate firms that have wooed prominent former prosecutors and built strong white-collar practices.
Nevertheless, boutiques continue to form, prompting many in the defense bar to ask whether there's enough white-collar work to go around.
In interviews with the Law Journal, a few white-collar defense lawyers said they felt the field was getting crowded, but others said there is a role for boutiques that find a niche and develop an expertise.
"There are many more fish chasing the same business," said Gordon Mehler, who started his own firm in 2000. While he said he thought older, established lawyers like himself would survive, younger lawyers entering the field in boutiques "will have a rough time."
There are more small firms focused on white-collar practice than there were five years ago, Mehler said. "The dynamics have dramatically changed" among the boutiques, he added.
One partner at a white-collar boutique who did not want to be identified said that "the practice area now feels to me very crowded and it's seems unlikely that there's enough work to go around."
"As work has slowed down for big firms, you see more lawyers at top firms competing with boutiques to represent individuals," the partner said. "For the people who want to get into it, it's a tough market to crack."
Others are more optimistic.
"You don't need to do any more than open the newspaper and see that there's another investigation," said Steven Molo, a partner of boutique MoloLamken. "The opportunities have increased for boutiques in several ways."
Increased government enforcement and regulation have propelled the growth of the white-collar practice. In just one example, the Securities and Exchange Commission said that in fiscal year 2012 it filed 734 enforcement actions, including those against insider trading, broker-dealers, delinquent filings and others actions, just one shy of the record in 2011. The government said the last two years reflect the highest numbers of total actions brought by the SEC.