Legal experts have existed in various forms at least since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. What started out as an unregulated group of advocates, orators, and policymakers has come a long way to becoming the modern profession we call lawyering. But what will the future hold? Where is the legal industry headed? What role will lawyers play in the future? This post looks at the evolution of lawyers from past to present, and on into the future.
The Lawyers of Old
In ancient societies, every person was required to plead his or her own cases. However, for obvious reasons, this wasn’t always optimal, and so the first lawyers arose as an unregulated group of “advocates” who were skilled in rhetoric and would plead on behalf of others.
Needless to say, the need for greater and greater regulation soon became apparent. Eventually, by about the 7th century, the practice of law became a real profession, and one that was highly stratified by skill level and expertise.
It would continue on in this fashion for years, and despite a near collapse of the legal profession during the Middle Ages, many of the fundamental principles of the system remain the same to this day.
Not unlike in Ancient Rome, the modern legal profession is based largely around a notion that all citizens should have an equal opportunity for representation before the law.
The legal profession has come a long way and presently accounts for nearly $400B in transactions a year. The vast majority of lawyers today work in private practice, at small to midsize law firms.
However, the legal industry is on the verge of a major transition, driven by the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives. Albeit a very gradual process, the evidence of transformation is plain for all to see.
Companies like RocketLawyer and LegalZoom are streamlining basic legal processes for consumers and small businesses. Axiom is doing similar things for large corporate clients. UpCounsel is creating a new legal marketplace for businesses, threatening the traditional corporate law firm structure.
The rate of innovation is only increasing, with hundreds of other new legal startup companies emerging every year. Like it or not, the legal startup ecosystem will continue to affect the way lawyers operate in the future. It’s time for lawyers to take note, and consider the nature of the changes taking place and their underlying causes.
In another post, we covered these 3 overarching trends reshaping the legal industry in more detail. But, as a recap, they are:
- Commoditization – legal services are becoming cheaper, more accessible, and more “productized,” reducing the need for traditional lawyers and law firms
- Specialization – Big Law is losing its stronghold as a result of downward price pressure, giving rise to more boutique firms with a niche focus that can better serve specific types of clients
- Technology – utilizing technology is no longer just a convenience, but a necessity in order to stay competitive and deliver efficient, affordable legal services at a profit
The next decade will present an interesting landscape for today’s young and aspiring lawyers. Will they step up to the challenge, and evolve to the needs of a changing market? Or will they cling to the ways of the past, and end up blindsided like the taxi industry when Uber came around?
Lawyers of the Future
Predicting the role of lawyers in the future is obviously speculative. But, by looking to some of the broader trends happening in other industries and in the economy at large, one can come up with some compelling hypotheses. Here are a few interesting trends that might take part in shaping the way lawyers function in our future society:
Platforms and the Sharing Economy
Historically, businesses have operated like pipes, where products flow directly from business to customer and money flows back in exchange. But the Internet has given rise to new and more innovative business models which function like platforms on top of which business is conducted.
Think about Airbnb, Uber, Alibaba, or even Facebook. All extremely successful businesses, but none of them actually produce a product that is sold to an end customer. They are platforms, connecting and facilitating business between hosts and guests, riders and drivers, buyers and sellers, or in the case of Facebook, producers and consumers of content.
Platforms have already emerged in legal too, with companies like UpCounsel, LawKick, and LawDingo bringing platform thinking to the market. These types of platforms will likely become increasingly relevant for lawyers in the future, as the economy becomes more and more platform driven.
On Demand or “Convenience” Economy
Haven’t noticed the emerging economy for on demand services? Just look at startups like Washio, a service that will pick up your dirty laundry, wash it, and return it nicely folded to you; or Shyp, which enables you to take a picture of something from your smartphone, pay the postage, and have it picked up and shipped, just so you don’t have to go to the post office; or Wun Wun, which literally will deliver absolutely anything to you for a small fee
Perhaps people are becoming lazier or busier, or maybe it’s all a result of greater accessibility to services enabled by technology. But either way, big businesses are being built on the notion of convenience. Law will surely be influenced by this trend as well.
Most court appearances will be conducted virtually. It will be possible to access legal advice with the tap of a button. More and more legal services will be packaged up and delivered instantly to consumers with minimal work on the lawyer’s end.
Mobility and Hyper Connectivity
People check their smartphones once every 6.5 minutes on average, and spend over 2 hours per day interacting with them. It’s clear that our society is always online and more connected by technology than ever. So there should be no doubt that this trend will affect the role of lawyers in years to come.
Interestingly enough, it seems that our hyper connected world may actually be breaking down the large “fortress-like” business structures that corporations and Big Law have worked so hard to build up over the past century. With products and services so easily accessible online, consumers have significantly more choices at their disposal, and more information to make informed purchasing decisions.
Our “always on” mentality is sure to make legal help more accessible, bridging the gap between legal experts and lay people. Mobile apps will certainly become an important resource for accessing legal information and legal advice on the go. More and more legal services will be delivered online, and facilitated by the use of technology and mobile devices.
It has leveled the playing field in many ways, which is partly the reason why small firms are on the rise, and specialization into niche areas of law is becoming more important.
An Exponential Rate of Innovation
Technology builds upon itself in such a way that the more advanced it becomes, the easier and more feasible future advancements are to make. This gives rise to an exponentially increasing rate of innovation, which is sure to completely transform every industry around the world, including legal.
What’s interesting, however, is that although technology may serve to replace or minimize the role of lawyers in many circumstances, it simultaneously creates the need for increased legal regulation and policymaking, which is often best handled by human legal practitioners.
Consider emerging fields like drones, health sensors, self-driving cars, and 3D printing. These types of new technologies are potentially so powerful that they could forever transform our society. But at the same time, they come with an enormous amount of risk due to the potential for abuse. For this reason, policymaking and the regulation of technology are seemingly going to remain highly relevant areas in which human lawyers will be important for years to come.
While the specific roles lawyers play today are likely to change drastically in the future, I don’t foresee the legal profession disappearing altogether anytime soon. In a highly connected, technology powered, mobile-centric world where the economy is built around platforms and on demand services, lawyers can surely still play an integral role.
The key to survival for lawyers will be whether they are keen enough to constantly adapt and reinvent themselves. Will they embrace opportunities presented by technology and the new legal landscape or resist them?
I foresee the industry expanding horizontally as opposed to vertically. Virtual law firms will be prevalent. There will be more small firms and solos with highly focused, specialized niche practices, while traditional, vertically integrated Big Law will mostly go away. Outsourcing will be extensive due to heightened connectivity and the destruction of any remaining location based barriers.
Aside from highly specialized functions, lawyers in the future will probably no longer perform most of the legal work, which will be conducted by much faster and more adept computer software. But the human element is something that is irreplaceable.
Human lawyers will still be necessary to interact with clients, represent those who have been wronged, interpret rapidly changing legal issues, and to propose and implement policies which will be paramount toward ensuring safety and order amidst the onslaught of powerful and transformative technology.
Oddly enough, the future legal industry may come full circle and actually look more like it did in ancient times, where lawyers were essentially just legal experts, orators, and policymakers, acting in the best interest of their fellow man.