Summary: How will attorneys and law firms cope with the future?
- What is the future of law and lawyers in our changing society?
- Despite influxes of a diversity and a new social strata, only time can truly tell.
- That, of course, doesn’t mean a lawyer and their law firm should not prepare themselves for change.
Unfortunately, things do not always work out that way for the corporate bottom line:
- Consumer interests change.
- Economies fluctuate, which can make a company’s end product less obtainable for consumers.
- Regulations, rules and taxes change, making a company’s product more difficult to produce.
- Consumer sentiment as well as an overall shift in society has rendered a company’s product, as well as existence, in a negative light; think the alcohol tobacco and firearms industry.
While the above is a bleak outlook for any business, those who work within these businesses have to be aware of how future events, attitudes, rules and other extenuating circumstances can affect their survival.
And inasmuch as this may seem like an observation focused solely on businesses, law firms – and lawyers in particular – need to be included in this reflection as well. After all, in recent times, law firms have emerged into businesses, and lawyers the purveyors of that business whose purpose has expanded to advisory roles such as finance and family counsel (to name a few) as well as law. This is welcomed in and of itself as clients can now use lawyers and law firms as one-stop entities who can be of assistance far beyond law-related issues.
Needless to say, while those who take to new and innovative approaches toward their businesses are probably still in business today and more than likely will remain in business in the future, much of the same can apply to lawyers, their approach to their clients, and their clients’ needs. Of course those attorneys and firms who have not adopted the new type of “all-inclusive” attorney, risk their own extinction. In their old school way of believing law is law and that all lawyers should concern themselves with is law, this type of Luddite attorney may not agree with this new process of legal representation, feeling that the practice of law is all they should be concerned with when it comes to their clientele.
This isn’t wrong; just outdated. It’s also dangerous. Today’s legal clientele expect much more from their attorneys.
What’s more is the world surrounding law also expects more from attorneys. It expects a new type of awareness, fairness, and belief system that the practice of law has never before experienced.
So, the question is does today’s expanded role of a lawyer truly indicate a forward movement of not only how they relate to their client-related responsibilities, but to society in general?
The following five points highlight what will be expected by both clients and society of attorneys in the future.
The Future Lawyer
According to Forbes Magazine, the future of attorneys will comprise a mixed bag; some of its contents many attorneys will already be familiar with, while other aspects may be completely foreign as to how attorneys not only practice law but understand the changing societal aspects and expectations of their clients and law in general.
As Forbes outlines, one way to describe the future lawyer is to list the key challenges attorneys will sooner rather than later confront, then identify skillsets required to meet those challenges.
- Defending the rule of law. This is democracy’s foundation and the mortar for its institutions. Lawyers are its first responders and last defenders. The rule of law is under siege around the world, and lawyers—present and future – must respond to the challenge.
This suggests that today’s actions taken when a law is broken, or needs to be upheld, will remain in place in the future. Legal experts will continue to debate points of legality, both for individual clients, and larger more far-reaching issues such as state, national and world laws.
- Insuring access to justice. The rule of law is undermined when a significant portion of society lacks meaningful access to legal representation. Such is the case in the U.S. and UK—elsewhere, too. Law has a distribution problem; there are too many unemployed and under-employed attorneys while millions of potential clients go unrepresented because they cannot afford counsel at current rates. Tools exist to correct this imbalance. Technology, process, project management, collaboration, and new delivery models are at the fingertips of future lawyers who can use them to refashion legal delivery.
While this may not be a challenge to future lawyers who are currently in law school, and likely more socially aware than older partners – or those who have graduated, especially in the era of social media, attorneys who are already practicing with a certain social strata of wealthy clientele, may be challenged.
This is because people of varying social strata (not just the rich), realize they also have legal rights they either were not previously aware of, or denied access to. Lawyers from this day forward need to be aware, and more importantly, inclusive of these individuals.
Again, this more than likely will not be an issue for newer associates or current law students who are most likely younger and more socially aware and accepting. On that same note, older lawyers need to be conscious that a new type of client, unfamiliar as they are, could soon seek their help.
- Preserving a free press and insuring that social media and ‘fake news does not subvert fact, evidence, and democratic institutions. Defending a free press has long been a mission for lawyers, and for better or worse, social media has broadened that ongoing challenge. To many individuals, social media is their ‘news’ source -- an ‘alternative press’ that lacks veracity filters and can ‘go viral’ in minutes. Social media is rapidly eclipsing traditional media, providing a global platform for ‘alternative facts,’ propaganda, and misinformation masquerading as ‘news.’ Lawyers must not allow the fact-agnostic court of public opinion to marginalize the judicial process. They must also take the lead to streamline the judicial process, utilizing technology and process to make it more accessible, agile, faster, and cost-effective than our outdated court systems are today.
Time and again, we have seen how social media has increasingly infiltrated both our work and personal lives. If a person is on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, they may literally think about one of these three social media powerhouses, and how their last visit to one of these online destinations may or may not be trending.
To be honest, whether a person is “liked” or for one or more particular comments, not liked, social media has forever changed how we interact with each other. One downfall of social media, however, is the perforation of fake news that is found on countless sites and within countless forums.
The job of future attorneys, particularly those who venture into or are already practicing within the fields of communications (broadcast news, radio, newspapers – as long as the three last, and mostly social media itself) as well as entertainment, will have a large hand in the preservation of a free speech media and the prosecution and suit of untruthful news sources that can adversely affect public stability.
- Insuring diversity in the legal profession. The world is more inter-connected than ever before. Given that, a more diverse legal profession is essential to enhance public confidence in the rule of law. The UK recently took a bold step in that direction with its ‘Super Exam.’ The UK’s independent Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) has dispensed with formal legal training as a requisite for attorney licensure. It has created an exam that tests knowledge of core legal principles; competency; contemporarily relevant skills (project management, technology as applied to legal delivery, interviewing clients, etc.); and experience. In providing various paths to licensure, the SRA intends to insure lawyers are practice-ready upon entry into the profession. The ‘Super Exam’ also reduces the cost of legal training and, in doing so, promotes professional diversity. This is a great step towards creating ‘the future lawyer,’ one that other countries should examine carefully.
While much of example #4 concentrates on how the UK is handling diversity within the legal system through its Super Exam, an assessment that practicing lawyers must take to show their ability to cope with diversity and how to work with diverse clients, the U.S. legal system will soon find (if it hasn’t already) that it too will need to acknowledge diversity within and outside the practice of law.
Clients will change, as will lawyers, particularly as this country continues in its role as a global-economic force. To that end, new issues of race and society will arise which all attorneys will need to be apprised of.
A suggestion to attorneys, both new and establish, as they become aware and more interconnected with diversity is to remember everyone no matter their social or racial background can have real-world issues that an attorney can at some point help to resolve.
- Insuring adherence to ethical standards. Law is big business—some estimates peg it at $1trillion per year. But law is also a profession governed by ethical standards. Lawyers will be exposed to old and new ethical challenges—client pressure to ‘push the envelope,’ economics, and the ‘ethics of technology’ to mention but a few. Future lawyers must adhere to ethical standards to protect the rule of law and to ensure that the dual role of law as a profession and a business is preserved. They must deliver ‘faster, better, cheaper’ legal services but never compromise on ethics. Future lawyers must utilize available tools to provide greater access, collaboration, and alignment of interest with clients; that is their ethical duty to individual clients and to society.
There is one certain offshoot of one’s inability to tell the future, and that’s what will be ethically acceptable, unacceptable and no longer applicable within the legal profession.
This is an enormous challenge for both the established and new lawyer in today’s legal world. For the fact is no one knows what ethically might be coming down the pipe from today going forward. Yes, it’s fine and good to rely on older decisions regarding law firm ethics. However, that’s a moving target mostly due to changes in society and the influences of diversity.
Yes, it is all fine and good for an attorney to treat fellow employees and new and/or established clients with the acceptance that diversity demands of almost everyone worldwide. The issue is how that will play out ethically within the legal practice? Who will consent to future societal change and who will buck against it, and for either, what sort of consequences lay in store?
Today’s lawyer does not have a crystal ball. Yes, they have to be socially aware, but that may not be enough to get them past the new hurdles that a socially changing world will put in their pathway. Even if an attorney is told to treat everyone fairly, that may only scratch the surface as diversity becomes an increasingly large part of the attorney’s world.
To that end, the practice of law may only be a portion of the future lawyer’s evolving profession. While law is important, to be aware of societal changes is even more important.
Sure, a lawyer will still practice, but being a shepherd for society, if that’s where the future of a lawyer is headed, has much larger and more important worldwide consequences.
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