What is a legal futurologist?

 In Comment, Gill's Blog, Practice Management

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I was somewhat surprised and saddened by the harsh comments and strong language used by members of the profession in their recent responses to the articles in the Law Society Gazette about Richard Susskind. Pretty much all of the comments were negative and some strongly questioned whether there is such a thing as a legal futurologist.

What is a legal futurologist?

The art or science of futurology

People have always been fascinated by what might happen in the future. Even to-day people read popular forecasts in newspapers and magazines. It is not just the ancients seeking signs and symbols in the stars or the entrails of animals or whatever their belief system pointed to but to this day we all plan in hope perhaps more than expectation for our future welfare when we save and invest in our pensions.

It is therefore not surprising that alongside forecasts which economists make predicting the next boom or bust we try and make our own assessments from both intuition and analysis of evidence as to what might be the next big impact on our businesses and which direction we might go in order to enhance or at least preserve our profitability.

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If futurology is a systematic means of forecasting the future based on current trends then surely lawyers would welcome someone taking this approach to the provision of legal services? Anyone working in a business or profession who relies on rewards from their work on which to live must surely like to think that to continue to invest their time and hard earned resources in that work remains a sensible use of their time and money. We might love being lawyers, we may dispute whether the practice of law is a business or not but if we rely on the rewards from being a lawyer to fund our lifestyle would we not be wise to consider if the way we do it is under threat or what we do could be improved?

The art of knowing what will happen next is to a lesser degree something we all purport to be able to master. We make a stab at what the weather might do as we leave the house and take a brolly or not as we think fit. We estimate whether we will have enough cash to see us through the month and make adjustments to our spending or find an alternative source of cash as appropriate. We predict next year’s budget based on current returns and our assessment of what is the likely trend in the sales of our services. Some of our predictions are very short term and not much better than a guess. Other decisions are based on detailed examination on many factors including, political, environmental, social, technological, legal, and educational.

On balance then futurology is a blend of science and educated guesswork.

The future of the professions

Back in 1997 Peter Cochrane wrote ‘108 Tips for Time Travellers’ which was a guide to new technology. At page 126 He said

  “Our civilisation and world of commerce is founded on the processing of atoms, the making and shipping of things. It is a human-scale world moving at a modest pace, where control and laws are key ingredients to success and sustainability. But we are in the midst of a transformation from a reasonably well behaved, understood and comfortable world of randomness, to a world of mind-boggling complexity and chaos. ….Soon a new mechanism, in the form of artificial intelligence, will introduce a further degree of freedom (or irresponsibility). It is already difficult to detect an electronic crime, define where it was committed, whose laws (if any) were broken and by whom. Even worse, it will be difficult to decide what was responsible, people may not even be involved….. This may all seem a radical and remote prospect, but machine-based peopleless corporations are already in prospect. In such a world I suspect we will need soft auditors, police and lawyers.”

In other worlds, he was predicting a future in which artificial intelligence would make a nonsense of the law as we know it. It would need to change as would those who police it in order to have a stable world.

Roll forward to to-day and Richard & Daniel Susskind in their book ‘The Future of the Professions’ is saying that society needs to have a debate about the use of artificial intelligence – how it is used and how it might enable access to professional services for people who cannot pay current professionals to access currently provided professional services.

In 1999, David Siegel in ‘Futerize your Enterprise’ said

Something very interesting happened to the legal world during the last ten years. People in the legal profession got together and managed to separate the meaning, writing and presentation of their documents. For the first time, the actual practice of law is separate from the syntax, the jargon and the artefacts we used to call legally binding documents.”

In other words the power to create legal documents was passed from just the legal profession to computer systems capable of harnessing the drafting ability of lawyers to create new documents from those building blocks as required.

Alan Hogart in ‘The Business of Law’ said

The problem for the vast majority of law firms is twofold. Partners do not have experience of pricing models other than hourly rates, and they have not been trained to manage the cost of an engagement to a fixed price (or estimate) so that clients’ price expectations are met and the required level of profits is generated. Partners are not generally aware of the profit margin required from their work. Neither are they aware of the cost structures and profit margins of different staff levels. Under an hourly rate, this matters less because cost is largely passed on to the client.”

Whether or not your firm is good or poor at pricing we can all acknowledge that the client for legal services, big or small, is interested in fixed fees or at least certainty no matter what the legal job undertaken.

These changes to the demands of clients and the ability of technology to undertake tasks with or without the aid of a human being should make us think about the way we do business. The Susskinds examine this interface not just for lawyers but a range of professionals whose role of interpretation of difficult matters is gradually undermined by free or low cost access to information in an understandable form via the web. Is it not sensible to at least consider what they have to say and in this context discuss what sort of society we want. One that is driven by commercial owners of data selling it for less than the professionals but then acting as gatekeepers to the information or one that provides it for free but assures it is correct? This is not a debate we have yet had.

Neither have we considered the changing role of our profession in a world that could need lawyers with different skills – not technical but more emotional. Lawyers who are able to relate to the needs of those clients who need judgement and advice rather than simply deliver a transaction or prepare a document. We need to consider at least whether and to what extent our legal system needs to change to deal more quickly and cheaply in the dispensation of justice and then to decide who and to what level people need to be trained to work in this system.

In the words of Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

The future causes most of us to become intensely short-sighted. From afar it swims in a crazy, unimaginable heat-haze. As we gradually arrive, it all seems perfectly normal and the past recedes in a blur. Somewhere along the line, we miss some vital perspective.”

I for one appreciate that some people are prepared to use analysis, technical knowledge and creativity to gaze into the future and encourage us to debate what we want it to look like and consider what it might be like to conduct business there. Disagree with their suggestions by all means but to demean the work and insult the person is beneath us and should be resisted.

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