Law firms are going through a phase of intense transformation. The way law practices are run has changed more in the last two decades than in the entire century before. One such change is that law firms largely have become corporate entities, and consequently are being run as such. Other changes are the result of the Internet and the emergence of new technologies. This has led to virtual practices, paperless offices, Artificial Intelligence assistants and even some robot lawyers. We work with digital devices, and we need to be aware of cybersecurity. On these devices, files and information are digitized, and as a result, evidence often is digital evidence, which in turn led to eDiscovery. Lawyers and clients find each other online, and interact through social media. Because of the cloud, traditional employment relationships are also disappearing. Most young people opt for self-employment and prefer to take assignments that can be performed at home. The need for a fixed workplace and fixed working hours seem to be obsolete.

These changes raise the question of what the future will hold for law practices. Will robots take the place of lawyers? Will offices disappear as everything moves to the cloud? How will the way lawyers work change? We will be looking at the law practice of the future in a two-part series, which is largely based on the Law 2023 Study (www.law2023.org). This study projected what a law firm will look like in 2023. For these two articles that information has been updated and complemented by more recent findings.

The Law 2023 Study predicts that law practices will evolve in seven ways:

  1. Technologies Will Enable Lawyers to Bill for Real Value
  2. Firms Will Develop Offerings That Transcend Jurisdiction
  3. Demand for Responsive Institutions Will Create New Markets for Accountability
  4. Firms Will Tap New Talent and Enable New Pathways to Practice
  5. Information Access/Transparency Will Push Firms to Seek Hyper-Specific Markets
  6. Firms Will Launch R&D Departments to Create New Offerings
  7. User/Anthropological Research Will Shape Client Experience of Legal Products

We will focus on the first three evolutions in the first part of this article, and the other four in the second part.


Evolution 1: Technologies Will Enable Lawyers to Bill for Real Value

The study found that “many lawyers are already experimenting with digital tools to enhance their practices. But the most powerful new technologies will likely be developed by innovators outside the traditional legal industry who are incentivized to offer basic legal services for radically lower costs.”

We are, in fact, already witnessing this with, e.g., the arrival of legal chat bots that offer legal assistance (often for free) with regard to parking tickets, damage to luggage claims, applying for refugee status, and even on divorce. A recent study found that approximately 23 % of the work lawyers do at present can be automated. Eager to seize that opportunity, there are dozens of startups that want to offer AI-driven services that offer very specific legal solutions.

It is perfectly possible that law firms will start integrating these new technologies in their offer. They would be wise to do so, as it will reduce their costs. And they may even start developing their own such tools (cf. evolution #6). But the main effect of these new technologies is that lawyers will have to start focusing on what brings real value to their clients. Often this will mean specializing in specific fields of expertise. Another effect of these new technologies is that they will lead to entirely new forms of practice, like computer-assisted law, that can only be pursued in this technological environment.


Evolution 2: Firms Will Develop Offerings That Transcend Jurisdiction

The study found that “as the pace of globalization quickens, the nature of jurisdiction will change. It’s not just that corporations and other institutions will need to navigate dozens or hundreds of sets of rules and regulations — they’ll also have a significantly greater need to choose among them. These clients will expect their counsel to keep up.”

Globalization creates a demand for global legal services, which creates new challenges and new opportunities. Proactive firms will develop methodologies and employ technologies to compare and assess how legal issues related to products or services are solved in different jurisdictions.


Evolution 3: Demand for Responsive Institutions Will Create New Markets for Accountability

The study found that “enabled by technology, citizens are demanding greater transparency and responsiveness from corporations, government and other institutions — which very frequently seem caught off-guard. In a world where a WikiLeaks is around every corner, institutions will need more than just good PR; they’ll need new tools to fortify their credibility and maintain public trust.”

Law firms who to tap into this new market must adhere to a ‘triple bottom line,’ evaluating their success using metrics beyond profits:

  1. Is your law firm the preferred place for the most profitable clients to do business?
  2. Is your law firm the preferred place for the most talented people to work?
  3. Is your law firm the preferred place where the most inspired leaders want to serve their communities and the larger world at hand?

Smart firms already understand how important the element of trust is to their long-term viability. This in turn creates a new market for lawyers who can help other institutions achieve transparency, accountability and responsiveness, by crafting the necessary policies and practices.

The demand for greater transparency and responsiveness will not only come from clients but also from the people who will work for the law firm: millennials prefer to work in companies that inspire, and that display a commitment to philanthropy and social responsibility. This ties in with evolution #4, which describes how law firms will tap in to new sources of talent. That will be one of the items discussed in part 2 of the article.

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