“Peace in our time”… “The Beatles have no future in showbusiness”… “There’s no chance the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”…and so on.
Really, I don’t know why anyone makes predictions about anything. A thousand unforeseen factors surface immediately you finish and shatter all your starting assumptions beyond repair. Only a glutton for punishment would actually make serious predictions on the record and in public. And so, naturally, here is my forecast for the future of legal careers.
In five or so years from now, the traditional legal market should be approaching both its zenith and its logical conclusion. Record-breaking profits for old ‘boomer’ partners as they burn up their law firms on their way out the door; the relentless disaggregation of legal work to lower-cost platforms, with ever-fewer associate roles for young lawyers; a metastasising crisis in the public legal system, coinciding with geopolitical upheaval in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. So much for us to look forward to!
As much as this might seem like a first draft of a script for Marvel Comics’ Avengers: Endgame, all this really represents is the culmination of trends spanning decades and a long overdue explosion of change in the legal market, against the backdrop of massive generational transition and technological chaos. The good news, and there is some, is that fresh opportunities for legal employment and value creation will start to flourish in this period, especially for lawyers with modern skills and diverse experience. Radically different law firm business models will start to emerge.
Fast forward 15 years and the picture gets brighter. There’ll be a new international order, and while it might not necessarily be one you like, at least it will be stable. Governments will hire lawyers to redesign and implement a new public infrastructure in which basic legal services are mandated and provided by the state. Courts will handle mostly criminal and constitutional matters, while civil litigation will go to private arbitrators and online DR platforms. Family dissolution will be fast, cheap and run by bureaucrats. I’ll leave you to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.
What will lawyers be doing? Some will be unique specialists, tracking down violations of bilateral personal information treaties or building online systems for auditing clients’ compliance with carbon-trading laws. Others will serve regional enterprises from suburban mixed-use developments, or run home-based solo practices using deep knowledge of narrow subjects to draw a worldwide clientele. Others will programme and upgrade online consumer law solution engines or deal with more complex matters beyond the software’s reach. And a hardy few will still bill by the hour for advocacy, judgement, counsel and complex legal advice.
I have very little to say about the legal world 25 years from now, other than that it will probably be helpful to specialise in constitutional, immigration, real estate or energy law. In a permanently hotter world beset by climate refugees, disappearing coastlines, forced population resettlement and the rapid development of non-carbon fuels, there should be no shortage of work for you.
Now, look: Am I utterly convinced that all my predictions will come to pass? Of course not. In case I hadn’t made it clear at the outset, predictions are a mug’s game, useful mostly for future amusement opportunities. But none of the factors behind these forecasts are imaginary or speculative – all you need do is look at the roads we’re driving down today to see that these potential destinations are not outlandish possibilities.
More importantly, the point of my forecasts is to give today’s and tomorrow’s lawyers not just a glimpse of what they might be doing in the 2020s and 2030s, but to remind them that no matter how great or how terrible things turn out to be, the world will still need lawyers. It might not always like us, and it probably still won’t fully appreciate us, but it’s going to need us. And we need to be ready to meet those needs, because they’re going to be different and more complex and more challenging than anything we’ve dealt with so far.
So, if you entered the law to become rich and influential, I’d suggest you consider another line of work, maybe hedge funds or Britain’s Got Talent! But if you entered law because you genuinely want to make the world a better place, then I’ve got great news for you: the world wants to be a better place. But it will need help to get there. And it will need you to step up and provide it.
Jordan Furlong is an author, consultant, and legal market analyst. He is author of LOD’s recent report: ‘Through the legal looking glass’.