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Forum magazine: 3 decades of change for lawyers and the law

Maya Campbell  Business analyst / Market Insights and Thought Leadership team / Thomson Reuters

Maya Campbell  Business analyst / Market Insights and Thought Leadership team / Thomson Reuters

It seems every day we are presented with an uncertain future: technological developments, geopolitical and environmental changes, all of which imply a vastly different future from the world in which we live today

And the legal profession is not immune to such changes. In fact, action is needed to understand these challenges and work progressively to create fairer and more effective processes in the application and practice of law. The Law Society’s Future Worlds 2050 project takes a fresh look at this horizon, discussing the forces that are shifting world dynamics and which have implications for the law and the legal profession.

Listening to myriad experts from business, law, academia and other fields, the Future Worlds 2050 research took an open, expert-led approach to collating foresights. The project sought a holistic approach to understanding the trends at play by looking at the forces that are shaping global dynamics and their implications. Exploring the legal landscape from a thematic perspective, the first report examines implications for law, lawyers and law firms over the next three decades. The report’s findings fall into four main categories:

      • geopolitical dynamics
      • artificial intelligence (AI) and other
      • emerging technologies
      • data, ethics and trust
      • our changing environment

Research for Future Worlds 2050 was undertaken from March 2020 to early 2021. The team and experts were acutely aware of how quickly life can change – and as such, sought to have wider imaginations around what the future might look like than perhaps was possible before the global pandemic.

This project is a collection of imaginings – thought leadership that is not designed as a road map to the future but rather a discursive exploration of many possible futures and observations on the potential implications for the law and the legal profession.

The impact of global dynamics in flux

Considering global dynamics, the themes of shifting geopolitical power, rising nationalism and changes in global trade patterns are featured. One aspect explored the relationship between populism and globalization. Many of the experts interviewed felt that today’s uncertain geopolitical climate reflects conditions that have historically allowed nationalism to thrive. Further, experts felt that this landscape did not lend itself to mitigating some of our most pressing “borderless” issues, such as a coordinated global health response, climate change mitigation, smuggling, and anti-money laundering efforts.

A siloed approach to complex issues is in opposition to many of the tools and interconnected processes we have developed over the last two decades. In an age where the digitalized world creates greater connection between peoples, geopolitical issues and regionalization around vital resources in the physical world will create flashpoints for future generations.

The role of emerging technologies

Against a changing geopolitical landscape, emerging technologies are increasingly being utilized to create new business and management models. The scale and pace of technological development raise key challenges for society, and therefore, the legal profession. Developments in AI, robotics, gene editing and other emergent technologies have created gaps in legislation and challenges for lawyers working in those spaces.

Around AI, for example, many experts questioned the tension between the ability of AI to optimize processes and the need to maximize people’s participation in the economy. Others reflected on the difficulty of determining the time frame in which widespread adoption of AI might occur.

In a legal context, experts questioned the extent to which some high-volume, low-complexity work might be completed by AI soon, and the impact that would have on head count in the legal profession. Right now, it is uncertain to what extent AI might play a role in the economy and how other emerging technologies might impact the future of work. Dell Technologies predicts that 85% of job concepts for 2030 do not yet exist. And looking at the rise of the social media influence over the last decade, it is easy to see how the law firm of the future may include a brand-new suite of technological tools and job roles to provide the best services to a new class of clients.

A changing climate – figuratively and literally

Geopolitical changes and technological advancements will occur against the backdrop of a changing climate. Through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the international legal regulatory framework for mitigating climate change, governments have committed to limiting emissions to 1.5 degrees C relative to the baseline year of 1990. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which supplies the UNFCCC with the best available science, predicts that if emissions continue at the current rate, we will exceed a 1.5-degree C temperature increase between 2030 and 2052.

Future Worlds 2050 explored the complexity of the climate question, from disproportionate adverse climate change impacts and the strain they might put on various areas of the law to the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors and corporate social responsibility in tackling this issue. Many experts spoke to the gaps in the regulatory systems and in the technology needed to effectively mitigate climate change, and the limits of enforceability. Many also considered the tech tools that could be deployed in the fight against climate change, including extreme weather attribution science and carbon capture and storage.

Thinking about lawyers of the future, the environmental space was one in which the fundamental purpose of the profession is called into question, with several experts asking about both the purpose and role of lawyers. Will they be commercial agents or change agents? And to what extent will younger generations share these perspectives around purpose as they intersect with the profession? Undoubtedly, climate change is an issue that will have a sweeping impact on the legal profession – the law and lawyers of the future will need to evolve in line with these pressing challenges.

The lawyer of the future

For lawyers of the future, trust as a commodity will be increasingly important. As technology alleviates tasks in pattern recognition and templated legal work, the lawyer of the future will need a skill set with more emphasis on soft skills and the ability to interact with the growing suite of technology.

Looking at developments in the e-discovery space or the role technology now plays in the referral of work across borders, for example, it is possible to see how areas of the legal profession can evolve rapidly. These developments will need to be proactively discussed as they arise, to ensure more effective and less biased processes are put into place going forward.

The Law Society will continue to share insights from the Future Worlds 2050 project, drawing on a range of creative and participatory means to develop this body of research further. A stronger, more resilient legal system is adaptive to global trends and developments, and lawyers of the future will take a precautionary view in understanding how these trends will impact the legal profession and society at large.


ForumYou can view the Law Society’s full Future Worlds 2050 project here.

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