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What will law practice look like in 2026? Reflections on the COLPM conference

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I’ve just returned from the annual conference of the College of Law Practice Management (COLPM). I’m not a member or fellow; I was drawn there by what looked to be one of the more thoughtful “legal futures”-type conference agendas of the dozens out there these days. It wasn’t all about tech –  which is exciting and essential – but you still have to figure out what to do with it and why.  Nor was it all about “Big Law”, although many of the attendees live in that world.

Drawing from Bill Gates’ quote that we overestimate the amount of change in two years but underestimate the amount in ten, the organizers (including Dan Pinnington of LawPro) chose the year 2026, and asked their panelists “What types of entities will provide legal services?”, “How will we better deliver what clients want and get paid for it?”, “How will technology change the nature of legal work and services?”, “Where will the legal jobs be and who will fill them?” and finally, “What will marketing and sales look in the new world of legal services?”

Each panelist tackled a question under those umbrellas, for example, “Will the billable hour finally be dead?” in the second panel (the answer: “no” for maybe 20% of work but “yes” for most.)

I can’t capture all of the great discussion in a blog post but wanted to share a couple of my own and others’ insights and observations of the conference.

One was the potential for big data and AI, rather than replacing lawyers, to be used as a valuable tool for improving  judgement and decision-making, which can be flawed by fatigue and bias and limited by our capacity for data. In this way, AI would become one in an array of tech tools being used like an “exo-cortex”. One could certainly see the advantages of using AI tools in courtrooms and tribunals where decision-makers hear many similar kinds of matters, and where studies have shown that irrelevant factors (such as time since last meal) can have an impact on outcomes.

Another was the emergence of the legal operations professional role. Whether it’s project management, change management, business development, fee negotiation, budget management, tech and product solutions or other functions, there is clearly a move to clear lawyers’ plates of the increasingly complex tasks involved in running a legal firm or department. Often lawyers staff these roles. Connie Brenton (JD/MBA), Chief of Staff and Director of Legal Operations for NetApp,   has been involved in establishing the rapidly-growing Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, and provided an update on, among other things, the status of  SOPS being developed by and for members (eg., “we don’t pay for first year associates”).

On the job market for lawyers in general, Jordan Furlong of Law21 predicted a continuing contraction followed by a leveling out by 2026, when most of the baby boomers will have moved on. Things will, however, look markedly different; there will no longer be partners and associates, most first and second year lawyers will be trained in organizations like Axiom, there will be more government and in-house lawyers, fewer lawyers but more legal operations roles, and there will be more flexible work arrangements.

Access to justice in 2026 will likely be better because of technology, and it’s a good thing. Glenn Rawdon of the US legal aid organization Legal Services Corporation talked about triaging clients into groups who can help themselves, with use of information and technology tools, and those who can’t. He shared some sobering US statistics about median income, however, that despite a recent bump (which still doesn’t get people to where they were before 2008) suggested that the demand for government-supported legal services will only grow, and that it would be difficult for a lawyer in private practice to make a living from low-income clients: Many people just have no money to pay a lawyer, no matter how they use tech to become more efficient.

There were lots of thought-provoking moments and a couple of moving ones too. There was the usual piling on of law schools who are seen to be turning out too many graduates who are ignorant to the realities they face and ill-equipped to handle them. Views were expressed that they should be training students for different types of legal roles, not just lawyer, and in general need to fold different types of skills training and business disciplines into the curriculum. I generally agree with the view that law schools should spend more time on lawyering, not to mention clients (and have since I graduated in 1987), but when Jordan Furlong said, “say what you will about how law schools should change, what they really must do is teach more rule of law, and the value of human dignity because we’re going to need lawyers to stand up for those things”, I applauded, as did many others. It was a valuable reminder, in an unsettling time, of the critical societal role of law schools.

A particularly thought-provoking moment came when Natalie Robinson Kelly, Director of the State Bar of Georgia’s Law Practice Management Program and an African American woman, facing a 99.9% white audience at a conference where 17 of 20 panelists were white men, addressed the question, “Will there be more diversity and equity in the profession in 2026?”. “What say you?”, she said and repeated, and after a long pause shared the anguish she felt in preparing her talk, knowing even before she got there that everyone else would be white. And then again, “what say you?”.

Clearly the next 10 years will be a time of challenge but also opportunity for legal services providers and those who educate and train them.  It was a terrific conference and if I have the good fortune to attend in 2026, I most definitely will.


vwatkinsVICTORIA WATKINS
Assistant Dean and Executive Director, OsgoodePD

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