Legal Trends, Legal TechJanuary 13, 2023

The Law Firms of the 2050s: Will we even recognize them?

Previously published by Fast Company, November 9, 2022 https://www.fastcompany.com/90808229/the-law-firms-of-the-2050s-will-we-even-recognize-them

 

During the 1970s, the “future” (usually referring to sometime around 1999) was often depicted as people casually traveling through space wearing outfits that looked like re-packaged aluminum foil. In the 1980s, the film Back to the Future Part II envisioned flying cars and hoverboards by 2015.

Visualizing the future is often a fraught exercise, but it’s also a fun and worthwhile one. By heeding current trends, we help prepare ourselves considerably for where they’ll likely take us. But when looking ahead 25 to 30 years, some developments are simply impossible to predict based on today’s hot trends alone—and that’s when the power of human belief and imagination has always taken over.

That said, what do I think the law firms of 2050 look like? Will we even be able to recognize it from the perspective of today? I believe we can expect the democratization of information to be among the largest factors in shaping the law firm of tomorrow.

The business world has been trending heavily toward virtual engagement since the arrival of COVID-19, but that was really an acceleration of what was underway. While Zoom had already been invented, it exploded because of the pandemic.

At the same time, the world has been altered by the democratization of information, which can be attributed to the internet’s arrival in the mid-1990s (around the time the 1970s people thought we’d be going to Pluto for business meetings). Today, almost everyone can access information that was once only available to the rich and the well-connected.

Assuming these trends continue—and there’s no reason to think they won’t—how might they impact the look of a 2050s law firm?

Legal Support Staff, New Focus

I personally don’t expect to see technology replace legal assistants, receptionists, and other members of the legal support staff. While AI assistants can tackle a great deal of what once required manual time and effort from employees, the best use of technology is to enhance—not replace—the efforts of people.

The jobs of legal support staff will undoubtedly change—most significantly to reflect the decentralized location and communication methods the current platforms are driving. I believe law firm staff are less likely to be answering phones or greeting in-person visitors and far more likely to help lawyers manage the greater output made possible by technology.

Legal support staff will probably deploy the technology available by then to provide their services on a larger scale at a lower cost.

Law Office of the Future

I envision the law office of 2050 as still consisting of physical space, but chances are it will not be used like today’s law offices. With both employees and functions decentralized through technology—and information increasingly digitized—the law office will evolve into a shared, multi-purpose space for gatherings, meetings, and events.

Rather than private offices assigned to specific lawyers, I imagine we’ll see shared workspaces, conference rooms, and even shared offices that are simply used by whoever needs them at a given moment.

While there will surely be some in-person interaction between clients and counsel, I expect it will be less for formal purposes (signing documents and so forth, since that can be done digitally) and more for the purpose of moral support, encouragement, and the type of counsel that best comes from a face-to-face conversation.

Quicker Case Time Cycles

One advantage of automation, as well as the democratization of information, should be that the overall time cycle of cases will quicken.

When it’s easier to find information, case outcomes will become easier to predict. Since case outcomes are now likely known, the lawyer’s role could change significantly. They would potentially put less emphasis on advocacy and more emphasis on case management.

For that reason, I believe lawyers will always be tasked with zealously advocating for their clients, but when the outcome is in little doubt, that advocacy may be more focused on the levels and tranches of the outcome.

Cloud Law

Legal data is very sensitive, and clients appreciate that information is secure. So, while cloud-based digitization is becoming more secure all the time, in 2050, it’s likely that every significant aspect of a law firm could be cloud-based. That will not only include client files and law books but entire office workflows occurring in virtualized environments. The physical office will no longer be the hub of file storage and work tools, simply because it no longer needs to be.

What about court?

We have already seen (during the pandemic) that some functions once considered mandatory for the courtroom could be handled virtually. We may still be a long way off from actual trials happening virtually, but many hearings and other functions could very well move to the cloud while physical courtrooms are reserved for events that simply must happen in person.

What don't we know?

While 2050 is still years away and some of the trends I’ve cited here seem irreversible, they are coming. It’s time for the legal profession to start planning for deployments of people, facilities, and resources that make more sense for where the whole world—not just the legal profession—is going.

A lot can happen in the years to come. We once thought fax machines would be ubiquitous in the 21st century. We figured we’d need those DVD players for a long time. Some of what I’m envisioning here could sound as silly in 2050 as those 1970s-era predictions about the “future” turned out to be.

The best approach is to plan based on what we know but remain flexible enough to change course if history surprises us yet again.

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