In June 2021, the Law Society of England & Wales published its report Future Worlds 2050: Images of the Future Worlds Facing the Legal Profession 2020-2030.
This project was “set up to bring an exceptional group of thinkers to the table for raw, frank and honest discussions around future client needs, to postulate the legal business models that will meet them.”
The aim appears to be a series of reports that will look forward to 2050 but this first one covers the period of 8½ years to 2030. It addresses four themes across best, and worst, case trajectories focusing on (1) geopolitical dynamics, (2) AI and emerging technologies, (3) data, ethics and trust, and (4) our changing environment.
For present purposes, I will just give you my thoughts on AI and emerging technologies that directly affect lawyers. However, I would highlight for US readers that the report predicts severe earthquakes in the US affecting global relationships and trade. I understand that Nostradamus predicted something similar for this current decade back in 1555. He sadly does not get a credit for this in the report.
The legal sector context
We get some facts to link the future predictions with today. The Law Society’s latest Annual Statistics Report reveals that in the 12 months to 31 July 2019, the number of solicitors with practising certificates “reached 146,953 – the highest recorded so far”. Therefore, it would appear that the number of lawyers is constantly increasing despite all the technological enhancements over previous decades.
Notwithstanding this fact, the report predicts, “it is technology that is currently expected to deliver the greatest changes in the sector”. This includes “particularly the rise of automated self-service legal tools”. If this means the like of the DoNotPay App (the report does not elaborate) then often such Apps are filling an unmet need where a client/solicitor relationship would be very unlikely to ever be sparked. Lawyers should not lose any sleep over that one.
Most 2030 jobs do not yet exist
The report latches onto a prediction, first made by Dell Technologies, with the Institute for the Future (IFF), in 2018, that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented yet. That is quite a staggering proposition and one that surely deserves some scrutiny.
A bit of googling reveals that when asked for clarification on the 85% assertion in the report, Rachel Maguire, Research Director at IFF said, “I cannot offer too much in the way of citation. As the report explains, this forecast was offered up during a workshop.”
As Derek Newton writing in Forbes on “The Myth Of Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet” commented, in a sarcastic tone, “It was offered up. So, it must be true.”
AI (without any current real life examples in legal services being given) is apparently “increasingly used by organisations to create greater efficiencies in pursuit of profit”. In doing so “by removing human labour they manage to remove costs”. This, however, leads to the concern that “you remove people from jobs and they can’t be trained fast enough to get new jobs as AI will have taken them”.
Can we not, at least, have some case studies please?
As 2017 ended, I predicted, “in 2018 AI will continue to be a de rigueur slot in legal technology conferences. But delegates will continue to leave none the wiser as to what they are actually supposed to do with AI in their own legal practices or how much it might cost them.”
Four years later and I am still searching for that Holy Grail. It looks like the Law Society of England & Wales have not found it either.
Yet apparently “a conservative route towards 2050” suggests that (a) “High-street firms and legal secretarial roles are most at risk of disappearing” and (b) “Smaller firms fall out of the market”.
A more disruptive scenario “assumes that the use of AI and other technologies will radically reduce the numbers of lawyers and other staff currently employed in the sector – this will be particularly marked in commoditised areas of the law and notable among ‘high street firms’ as conveyancing, wills and probate are amongst services delivered by large retail legal service providers. In corporate law firms, large swathes of routine legal advice will either be conducted in-house by clients using technology solutions, or outsourced to technology-enabled providers. Only the high value, complex or newest areas of law will need human input.”
Again, where are the case studies?
I have yet to see any signs of AI or other technologies even beginning, in any way, to sometime replace conveyancers or private client solicitors.
Decent document automation technology has been around for 25+ years. Most law firms are still not using such technology anywhere near to an extent that would increase efficiencies and enable a reduction in staff numbers. If law firms haven’t managed to achieve that with existing technology over the last 25+ years, what is this amazing new technology that will do it for them in the next 8 ½ years?
Robot law librarian
When IBM launched Watson into healthcare, they thought their AI machine would replace doctors. It did not. As pointed out in an article ‘IBM Watson, Heal Thyself’ by Eliza Staickland published in Spectrum (April 2019), “most doctors would probably be delighted to have an AI librarian at their beck and call—and if that’s what IBM had originally promised them, they might not be so disappointed today. The Watson Health story is a cautionary tale of hubris and hype. Everyone likes ambition, everyone likes moon shots, but nobody wants to climb into a rocket that doesn’t work.”
If AI can be sold as being more of a robot law librarian to lawyers that might be a more realistic proposition. However, I think I would still get my real life law librarian to operate it for me.
Areas of focus in the near term
We are told that “emerging technologies and their potential legal applications should be a priority across the profession. The cost pressures on the legal sector to adopt AI and streamline legal functions will lead to more work types being commoditised, automated and self-service in the near term.”
I am beginning to sound like a stuck record, but where are the case studies?! What are these emerging technologies? Have they not emerged yet? Or are they simply the document automation tools that have been around for 25+ years that some Legal Tech vendors have recently stuck an ‘AI’ badge on?
It’s life Jim, but not as we know it
The more outrageous disruptive predictions in the report (and remember these are happening by 2030 or by 2050 at the latest) are:-
- “Trust in the decision-making of AI systems reaches the point where machines have a vote on the boards of large companies.” (by 2030)
- “one interviewee described an experience chip in which it was possible to transfer experiential knowledge from one organism to another. She discussed this as a means of addressing the fragility of human flesh and how long humans could live a mobile life, but her example also raises possibilities for sharing knowledge of the law amongst humans in the future and perhaps begins to address the question of how to train senior lawyers when junior tasks have been automated.” (by 2050)
- “The legal profession is not immune to a savage reduction in FTE [Full Time Employment] (almost 50% between 2030 and 2050).”
- “Lawyers remaining within the profession must work alongside technology – and are required to take performance-enhancing medication in order to optimize their own productivity and effectiveness.” (by 2050)
If, by 2050, we can just insert a new chip into ourselves or transfer our chip into a new body, I am baffled as to why we would also need performance-enhancing medication. If we do not have the chips and that medication is to keep up with the AI, what have we allowed AI to become and why do we not just leave AI to it?
Even when being conservative rather than disruptive the Law Society are likely to alarm many of their members with this report. They should really be doing the opposite and seeking to dampen the hype surrounding robot lawyers taking over. I am not sure that those robot lawyers will be paying Law Society membership dues.
The over reliance on other previous futurist reports which may rely on predictions offered up at a workshop discredits this report. As does the lack of any actual specific references to the type of AI or other emerging technologies that are currently in use in law firms, and in what specific practice areas that may cause the type of disruption predicted. In addition, the report does mention blockchain in a positive sort of way on five occasions.
Those earthquakes in the US are maybe the most likely prediction in the Future Legal Worlds 2050 Report to become a reality. If they do, whether they affect global relationships and trade is another matter entirely.
Brian Inkster is the founder of Inksters Solicitors. He was winner of the Managing Partner/Team of the Year award at the Law Awards of Scotland 2014. He blogs on the Past, Present and Future Practice of Law at The Time Blawg. Email email@example.com. Twitter @BrianInkster.
Image: Into the unknown cc by Edwin Land on Flickr.