The theme of the College of Law Practice Management’s 2016 Futures Conference, “What will Law Look Like in 2026?” brought out some deeply interesting thoughts. We’ve asked four speakers to summarize their presentations for our readers. Today, Law21’s Jordan Furlong traverses the hills and valleys of the future of legal employment. Will you have a job?
Where will the legal jobs be in 2026? Well, the short answer is: Read William Henderson’s ABA Journal article “What the Jobs Are.” It’s hard to improve on Bill’s excellent work, but I’ll offer some complementary thoughts here.
By 2026, we should be coming to the end of an extraordinary period in the law: several years of a continuously shrinking legal profession. The overall number of lawyers is going to decline for two main reasons:
1. Automation and process improvement will have become widespread in the legal market, in both the consumer and corporate law sectors. Demand for the time and effort of lawyers will be replaced in many instances by demand for affordable, efficient and user-friendly computer platforms, programs and procedures for delivering legal outcomes. Tasks that once occupied an hour of a lawyer’s day will consume a few seconds of a computer’s run-time. The next decade will see the ruthless exploitation of a century’s worth of inefficiencies in the legal market. And it will happen so quickly that many lawyers won’t have time to adjust.
2. Generational crises will decimate the legal professions at both ends of the demographic scale. The long-delayed Baby Boomer retirement wave is already underway — by 2026 even the youngest Boomers will be 62, and the oldest will be 80. But the expected replacement wave of Millennial lawyers won’t materialize, as a lost generation of under-equipped, debt-ridden law graduates from 2008-2018 will never enter the profession, or will leave it early. Difficult economic times will further push both the old and the young out of practice, creating an unprecedented net loss of lawyers.
Climbing Out of the Valley
But by 2026, this cull of lawyers — that feels like the appropriate word — should have ended, and legal jobs should be on the upswing again. That’s because there’ll be a much wider diversity of legal careers and more platforms on which they can develop.
Law firms will employ both “client-facing” lawyers for advocacy, counsel, and other high-value strategic services, as well as “firm-facing” lawyers such as programmers, knowledge managers, data analysts, and client support professionals. The term “associate” will be obsolete, and “partner” won’t be far behind.
Flex-lawyer platforms and legal process outsourcers will provide new lawyer training and experience — and they’ll come to do it so well that we’ll wonder why we ever left that task to law firms. We’ll see more hiring by corporations and especially by governments, both of lawyers and of “legal operations” professionals.
Brand new platforms for legal services will emerge, many of which we don’t think about today. Deloitte and KPMG, Kroll and Accenture, Target and Sam’s Club, and Amazon and Google could all be selling legal services. And we’ll lose count of all the new legal technology applications and the abounding opportunities they’ll create for lawyers and legal technology engineers.
The near-term prospects for lawyer employment don’t look especially bright to me; it feels like we’re descending into a shadowy valley whose depth is uncertain. But I’m optimistic that we’ll come out of that valley and climb a higher and sunnier hill on the other side.
It all depends on the degree to which lawyers can adapt our invaluable skills and talents to a different set of market conditions than those to which we’ve long been accustomed. Our future really is in our own hands.
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