Year End Prognostication for the Year of 2025

The American Bar Association recently asked leading members of the profession to prognosticate their perspective of the legal profession 20 years into the future, the year 2005. I was asked to participate. The results will be published in a forthcoming edition of Law Practice Today, the electronic publication of the Law Practice Management Section.

Following are my responses to the questions:

1. What will be most different about the practice of law twenty years from now? Why?Law firms have always mirrored their clients. As clients got larger, so did law firms in order to match the footprint and be available to serve the clients’ needs wherever they were/are. As law firms continue to get larger, because their clients are getting larger, and the process of mirroring continues, law firms will come to look more like the corporate model they represent.

Look at the corporate model today and you will see a semblance of the law firm of tomorrow.

The rules of professional conduct require that a lawyer be competent to handle a matter. The definition of competency is essentially based on a community standard. While never yet tested, I suspect the standard of competence for an urban lawyer may be different than that of a rural or country lawyer. Thus, in a large, metropolitan area, lawyers are technologically sophisticated. To be marketable, and to be deemed competent, then, the lawyer will have to invest many dollars in technology.

The more sophisticated an office is, technologically, the faster the lawyer can perform her/his service. The faster the service, the lower the revenue if based on an hourly billing basis. This assumes that, despite increased rates per hour, there is a competitive limit on hourly rates. With lower revenue (due to increased speed of production) and increased costs (due to increased technology investment), there is reduced profits … and even losses for the lawyer.

The only way around this would be to charge a fixed fee (value billing) which allows the lawyer to do the work and benefit from his/her increased efficiency without having to pass that increased efficiency on to the client (as is now the case).

For this to work to everyone’s best advantage, extensive communication is required and this is one of the skills that lawyers will have to enhance in order to be successful.

3. What will law firms look like in twenty years? Mega firms, virtual organizations, or what?There will be all manner of modalities. The very large firms will exist for the very large clients. There will be boutique firms to work in specific niches of practice that are not required by major corporations, but still provide important services. (Immigration is one example of this.) There will be the regional firms. And there will be the sole practitioners and small firms that will represent individuals and families in consumer matters such as family law and the like.

More will be done with technology; some believe that much of the law will be commoditized. I believe, however, that technology will permit lawyers to do the mundane quickly and then focus their energy on their real skill, problem solving and interpretation of the complexities our modern society presents in our daily living.

4. Will computers replace most of what lawyers do in twenty years? If so, how and what will be left for lawyers?Computers will never replace lawyers; they will merely make their jobs easier. Some services will become commoditized, but this will release the bulk of lawyers then to focus on the creative, problem-solving aspects of the law practice.

5. Will the trend toward internationalization of law firms increase over the next twenty years? Will it engulf even the small firms?
I suspect that communications will continue to improve and that everyone will be impacted by this movement. Despite, the outward look, legal matters will continue to have a local flavor.

The old concept of knowledge management was to look in your file cabinet and pull out the paperwork of your last deal or pleading. In the future, KM will mean that AND looking at the file cabinet (and internet) of other lawyers and their work product in order to create the solution to the challenge being faced by your client today in the fastest way and least expensive way possible.


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