New boutiques must face the reality that clients might want large firms to conduct an investigation so it carries more weight and credibility with the government, Harris said. A smaller firm may need to have prominent former prosecutors or government officials on their roster.
"It's going to really depend on whose name is on the report," Harris said.
An advantage for boutiques, however, is that they can promote cost savings and lean staffing.
"At the end of the day, our billable rates are a bit lower, our staffing is a little more streamlined," as fewer people are assigned to each case, Krantz said. "So we come in at a different price point."
Meanwhile, firms continue to see potential in the practice. Philadelphia-based Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, which opened a New York office in 2011, is planning to beef up its white-collar practice with new associate and partner hires this year in the 20-lawyer Manhattan office.
Firm chairman Richard Scheff, who splits his time between Philadelphia and New York, said that "there are a lot of lawyers focused on this practice area" but "it does not give me the least amount of concern given the level of activity."
Noting the steady demand in the practice, Molo pointed to U.S. and global investigations into corruption, continued enforcement activity in the securities field and the 2012 presidential election.
"The nomination of Mary Jo White as the new head of the SEC signals a strong emphasis on enforcement. With the re-election of President Obama and the likely continuation of his policies regarding competition, we will likely see increased activity in antitrust enforcement," he said.
Anello said a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision could impact white-collar practice. The central question in Gabelli v. SEC, 11-1274, is whether the statute of limitations is five years from the time the alleged wrongdoing was discovered, or when it occurred. If the Supreme Court decides it is when the alleged violation occurred, some civil enforcement charges brought during the financial crisis could soon become stale, Anello said.
But speaking on the long-term prospects of the white-collar practice, Anello said, "It will continue to be a fertile area for law firms."