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If we could see the future with perfect clarity, we would all be on a yacht somewhere. But even so, some of the biggest trends that will impact the legal profession over the next year are inescapable. An aging population, the integration of technology in daily life and the continued loosening of traditional gatekeeping rules in the legal profession—all of these forces feel like certainties. And all of them give rise to legal trends to watch in 2020.
Of course, there are wildcards too—namely, an economic recession that some feel is inevitable. No one knows if or when that will come, but even on that subject, we can be sure of one thing: plenty of lawyers will be preparing for one.
Here are five trends to watch for the coming year.
Though economists and market watchers have pulled back from the notion that a recession is imminent, that’s not enough to make law firm leaders feel safe. According to one survey of law firm leaders, firms are still preparing for the possibility that cutbacks will be necessary at some point in 2020.
Late last year, Morgan Lewis® appeared to be bracing itself when it offered voluntary buyouts to its U.S. legal secretaries. It did make clear, however, that this was not a precursor to layoffs. Regardless, we can expect more firms to position themselves to weather the hard times they expect to come. That could mean investing in countercyclical practices like bankruptcy or shifting resources away from transactional practices to litigation.
With the aging Baby Boomer generation, the U.S. is approaching a point where there will be more senior citizens than children for the first time ever. We won’t reach that milestone until about 2030, according to government projections, but the demographic shift is well underway. The implications of an aging population are many, including even greater stakes for contentious health care issues like changes to the Affordable Care Act. Regulatory and transactional health care practices should bill plenty of hours in 2020, along with elder-oriented practices like retirement planning and trusts and estates.
Long prohibited by bar rules, the possibility of non-attorney ownership of law firms should continue to generate major chatter in 2020. It may even become a reality. Several states have been inching in this direction in recent years. A California proposal floated last year got an unfavorable reaction from practitioners, as one might expect. But pressure for change is mounting. The California proposal grew out of a report that the state commissioned from law professor William Henderson, who found that certain ethics rules are increasing the cost of legal services and pricing out everyday consumers.
In addition to California, Arizona, New Mexico and Illinois have all made gestures towards liberalizing their bar rules in a way that would open up the legal industry to more involvement by non-attorneys. Utah, for its part, has adopted a plan that would let accounting firms offer legal services in conjunction with their accounting services.
The legal practice areas that will emerge in 2020 grow directly out of changes happening in the world around us. Much of that change is driven by technological innovation and, indeed, legal issues around autonomous vehicles and the operation of drones will no doubt continue to expand in 2020.
Firms looking for other emerging practice areas need not look any further than the front page of the newspaper. Consumers spent $3.1 billion on licensed cannabis sales in California alone in 2019. With regulatory questions plentiful in this area of legal uncertainty, lawyers should pick up plenty of work in 2020. Unfortunately, the increasingly apparent impacts of climate change can also be expected to generate diverse lines of new work for lawyers in the years ahead.
As the largest law firms continue to spread their operations to lower-cost cities, midsize firms will have to fend them off for talent. There’s no doubt that legal jobs are growing in emerging markets like Orlando, Florida, while leveling off in the biggest cities. Last year, the city with the greatest growth in “legal service employment” (a term that covers lawyers, paralegals and administrative staff) was Phoenix, Arizona, followed by Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, in the epicenters of the legal profession—New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; and Washington D.C.—only L.A. has experienced growth in legal employment in recent years.
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