'By 2030 everyone will have a free lawyer at their disposal'

Paper on profession's future paints one dystopian scenario of ravages of AI with elite cadre of lawyers on performance-enhancing drugs
Futuristic architecture rendering. Science fiction cityscape in sunset colors. 3D rendering

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The Law Society of England and Wales has envisaged the future – and found it to be potentially rather bleak, with City lawyers being encouraged to take ‘performance-enhancing medication’ to remain competitive.

Predicting a future in which consumer services, like property and private client law, are ‘delivered by large retail legal service providers’, it says commercial law firms will see ‘large swathes of routine legal advice’ outsourced, leaving an elite cadre of City and in-house lawyers to advise in person.

‘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,’ the report finds. ‘Only the high value, complex or newest areas of law will need human input. Humans may also be needed in relationship management with larger clients,’ it warns.

Those lawyers that remain in high-end jobs, the report says, will be ‘generally immune to a radical reduction in staff’.

The Future Worlds 2050 project was set up to ‘enable raw, frank and honest discussions around what clients will need in the future’. Its first report, Images of the Future Worlds Facing the Legal Profession 2020-2030, pulls few punches. 

Drawing on a ‘Delphi panel’ of futurologists and previously published research by KPMG, the report sketches competing visions of the future, one cautious, the other more apocalyptic. 

Cautious assessments of workforce change suggest a 20% decline by 2050, while the more catastrophic modelling envisages ‘savage job cuts’ leading to a 50% reduction in the legal workforce.

Law Society president Stephanie Boyce said: “The legal profession is at a pivotal moment, as is the world in which we live. There are a plethora of forces shifting our collective experience and the business environment. If we’ve learnt anything from 2020, it’s that the future can still catch you unawares.”

The report forecasts extensive change to law firm partnerships by 2030, with extensive ‘deskilling of the legal profession as AI takes over’ and ‘dramatic’ changes in compensation as a result, meaning that, by 2030, ‘everyone has a “free’ lawyer” at their disposal, similar to Siri’.

It adds that, in one dystopian scenario: ‘Lawyers remaining within the profession must work alongside technology – and are required to take performance-enhancing medication in order to optimise their own productivity and effectiveness.’

Other likely challenges include China’s dominance as an economic and political superpower - aspects of which can already be seen in recent events in Hong Kong – as well as issues arising from green energy and climate change.  

Boyce said: “New forms of green energy and climate change action could create opportunities for lawyers and their insurer clients, as they seek to find innovative solutions to the risks posed by extreme weather events. Legal input and advice will also be needed around ‘green funding’ – investors financing environmentally friendly companies – and there is likely to be a rise in climate litigation against corporations or governments.”

In a more optimistic passage, the report suggests technology could be 'leveraged in creative and socially advantageous ways to democratise access to justice in the legal sphere, tackle environmental degradation and revolutionise health outcomes'.

Boyce concluded: “This project is a unique opportunity to look ahead at the challenges and opportunities that may face us in the next decade. Science fiction is already becoming a reality, so what can we look forward to in 10 years’ time? We intend to illuminate the path ahead for the profession, so the future may be a little less uncertain.”

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