December 27, 2012

I do not often complain about my contributors. The Eastham office’s, non-secular, daily assembly normally includes grateful thanks to those who have supplied copy for the web site and magazine; printouts of their photographs are central to a small shrine in the corner of my office. But I was a bit shocked by the reaction of many to the call for predictions for the years beyond 2013. The response was excellent and you will notice that this issue is dominated by a selection of those responses. But some refused to look beyond a year ahead (often claiming to be dead in 2053, as if that was an excuse); some came up with suggestions for 2053 (and even 2023) which took an extreme view of the law which would fit well with the kind of futuristic films that feature highly sophisticated robot soldiers which can travel through time and space (but cannot shoot a human if he or she runs really quickly). 

Planning for the longer term, even only 10 years ahead, demands some element of longer-term vision. Not to seek such vision, indeed closing one’s eyes to it, seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility in any area over which you have power. That area might be as limited as your own career, or as wide as the future of your firm or the legal profession as a whole. The need for us all to ‘own’ the future is part of the message of Richard Susskind’s latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers – An Introduction to Your Future’. I have found it quite comforting that somebody with clout is trying to prise open closed eyes. If mortgage and pension planning were as short-sighted as career and professional planning seems to be, we would all be shocked (‘I won’t need a pension, I’ll be living on Alpha Centauri eating digitally produced buttercups.’). In fact, I feel that the book understates the level of change we might expect because its focus is on technology, and that leaves the massive shifts arising from economic change (China etc), perhaps understandably, outside its brief.

When considering my own 40-year predictions, I was most struck by how little the essentials of legal practice have changed in the last 40 years. The model is still man or woman who knows law advises man or woman with a problem in a room at a face-to-face meeting – though perhaps the most important change is that, 40 years ago, I might have omitted ‘or woman’ and thought nothing of it. But the model is no longer almost universal and the glimmerings of radical change in the way that lawyers work are almost all the product of the last 10 years. The wave is still forming. I do think that the ‘paradigm shift’ is somewhere not that far away – perhaps not as near as the President of SCL might think but on the horizon of even those without Richard Susskind’s binoculars, and a good deal nearer than 2053.

A full review of Tomorrow’s Lawyers will appear on the SCL web site in the New Year. Though relatively short, the new book is much more than my initial assessment, Susskind for Dummies, suggested and deserves a considered review.  I found that I was not the right person to write it, mainly because I am too old. I wanted the reactions of young lawyers. But as Scott Allardyce (a young lawyer at Bristows whose views were sought) observes ‘Susskind’s book is not solely aimed at aspiring lawyers and those who have taken only a few steps on the legal ladder (although there is much in here of interest to us, including a description of our likely future job scope and questions we may want to be asking our future employers). The book is also aimed at partners, general counsel and the judiciary; anyone, indeed, who has energy and an “opportunity to be involved in shaping the next generation of legal services”‘. The more senior figures to whom Scott refers will certainly want to read about Susskind’s ‘more for less challenge’, requiring private firms to find increasingly varied and creative methods of billing which provide better value for money for clients, and the evolution of a slender pyramid-structure, with fewer junior associates and trainees at the base. But I would like to think that SCL members are concerned about more than future developments that will hit their pockets. We all have an interest in and responsibility for the future provision of law and taking an interest in that future is a minimal first step. 

So, in wishing you all a Happy New Year, my additional wish is that you all might expect a happy longer-term future. That is not going to come by dint of my wishes. It is more likely to come though if you take a just a little time, perhaps prompted by the predictions in this issue or the Susskind book, to think about your profession and its future and your own place within that future.