Charting the Perils of the Future

The Law Society of England and Wales has published a report on the key trends shaping the world and, in particular, solicitors’ practices over the next decade. There was not much support for the initiative to be seen in the 65 comments on the Law Society Gazette website. Anonymous at 9.10pm on 9 June pretty well sums up the negative tone of most: ‘What an utter waste of times. Of all the things the Law Society needs to be doing, it chooses to spend time producing this drivel.’ The coverage of the report to which s/he objects was headed ‘Law Society predicts “savage reduction” in legal jobs as AI takes over’. Some of the report might need refinement and it has clearly been drafted to provide stimulation for debate (albeit not as dismissive as anonymous). But, the overall predictions of job losses and changes? Anonymous might not like them but it is difficult also not to see them as pretty inevitable. My own gripe would be minor and somewhat more displaying my age: why is its author, Tara Chittenden, described as a ‘foresight manager’? Before job title inflation, she would have been a researcher.

The report places legal services in context. It is difficult to know whether its prediction is correct that China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy by 2026 and what the consequences will be. But, the fact of it sounds likely. And, it has some interesting general observations that at least merit discussion: ‘Generation Z begins to reshape global politics as we see a generational shift in allegiance and identity, alongside the lasting impact of Black Lives Matter and other social movements’. So, that may be a timely warning against the anti-woke agenda.

It is difficult to argue against the report’s identification of the major trends that will dominate the next decade and beyond. These include Artificial Intelligence; the importance of data, ethics and trust; and climate change. You could take issue with the detail. You might think it fanciful – one commentator did – that ’85 per cent of job concepts in 2030 do not yet exist’ but then who predicted foresight managers in 2011? 

It is also difficult to deny the benefits of at least arguing about how legal jobs will evolve. There are enough warnings around from serious commentators about the threats and potential responses. Professor Stephen Mayson, who has carved out a nice niche as a leading thinker on regulation, is quoted in the report as saying ‘They’re [lawyers] not ready.’ He then continues that ‘The best way to prepare themselves is probably to stop thinking of themselves as lawyers’. Well, we can discuss that later.

The style of the report provides hostages to fortune for a literally minded lawyer audience.  It is fine to predict ‘greater use of technology in law firms, with changing skills profile of the talent base’. That is provocative enough if you think through its implications. I myself would not proceed to predict – above all to a bunch of lawyers – that ‘trust in the decision-making of AI systems [will] reach the point where machines have a vote on the boards of large companies’. And, to be fair, some nuanced responses are noted in the reports. Clifford Chance’s Laura King says, surely utterly sensibly,  that ‘AI is incredibly useful for linear questions. You are seeing AI takeover for certain regulatory questions; for example, decision trees where you have to say, ‘if I do this, will I be in breach of that?’ But, most of the work that you do in a high-end legal profession does not have a yes/no answer. I do think that there will always be a place for that clash between commerce, regulatory, risk appetite; knowing your client, knowing the history of your client, knowing what your client’s potential strategy is. There are so many variables at play.’

Ms King has surely got somewhere close to the nub of the issue. Any lawyer currently spending their time on processes of any kind which can be automated will, sooner or later, be vulnerable to AI-based innovation. That is the same as anyone else in the economy. The trick for lawyer survival is to find work which is adding the human value. That can be, as Ms King suggests, in judgement which may well depend on such nebulous considerations as the degree of risk that a client is prepared to take in terms of reputation, prosecution or civil liability. Give me a wise old lawyer who has been around the block a few times any day of the week on those considerations rather than a shiny black box running off old algorithms. In the access to justice field, the human value may come from in person communication with clients who – for whatever reason – need it. Altogether, it seems likely, as the document predicts, by 2030 ‘the best strategists stand out as the best lawyers’. But, then, isn’t that the case now?

As often in this kind of document, the argument tends to over-simplification. Will there be a deskilling of the legal profession as AI take over? The value added will come from using the AI. It also seems contentious that ‘compensation in the profession [will] drop dramatically’. It is more likely to be even more split than now between high and low earners. Overall, the number of lawyers employed in legal practice may decline but the US is an example of a country where law has been regarded as a good general training for business, politics or other activity. The President and Vice-President of the US are both former lawyers. History teaches us that lawyers are terribly resilient. Legal qualification may flourish even as legal practice diminishes. Indeed, that would seem to be a good strategic insight for the Law Society to pay heed.

So, the doubters of this kind of exercise should keep asking exactly where Kodak is now that it has lost its commercial raison d’etre. And lawyers – both at the centre in the Law Society and out in the field – will only benefit from forcing themselves to argue why they should survive in a much changing world. No one wants to follow Ned Ludd and Captain Swing into the forgotten byways of history. And the Law Society is right to provoke thought among its members. Maybe Anonymous could come back in ten years and tell us how it’s been for them. 

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