I just participated in an interesting survey: What will the legal profession look like in 20 years? Here are my predictions. I invite disagreement, comments and applause.
1. What will be most different about the practice of law twenty years from now? Why?
The Federal Trade Commission will assert its authority over all the professions including law. It will find that the Rules of Professional responsibility are a restraint on trade and will use its power under to Commerce Clause to nullify all state ethics rules. The impetus for this change will be a major scandal, like the Enron scandal which brought down the accounting profession. There will be a public outcry that the legal industry is unable to police itself and the profession will lose the privilege of setting its own ethics rules. All limitations on practicing in different states will be struck down as a restraint of trade; there will be a national bar exam that admits attorneys to practice in any jurisdiction. This will be a boon to law firm marketing - as lawyers will be able to use all commercial means available to promote themselves in any jurisdiction.
2. Will the billable hour still be king in twenty years? If not, what will replace it?
No. Law firms will have a "rate card" and offer services as "products" - for example, a set price for a motion to dismiss or a fixed transaction price to acquire a business. All services will be priced on a fixed-fee basis, with the option to charge an extra hourly fee only if a service takes more time than specified in the rate card. This will be the result of a union of corporate counsel that is formed to promulgate the Uniform Legal Services Price Code (ULSPC). Law firms that do not conform to the ULSPC will have to justify the difference in rates.
3. What will law firms look like in twenty years? Mega firms, virtual organizations, or what?
There will be a major consolidation of law firms, with the mega-firms buying up practices in all the financial centers. Most law firms in the AmLaw 100 list will have offices in each of the largest major business markets in the US (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, Baltimore, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Columbus, Washington, DC and Boston). Smaller law firms will survive, either as regional general practice firms for consumers, specialty boutiques or plaintiff personal injury firms.
4. Will computers replace most of what lawyers do in twenty years? If so, how and what will be left for lawyers?
Most business firms will use decision-making software that helps litigation clients decide if it is worthwhile going to court after all. The Pinsents' and the Wragge law firms in London is already using such systems, called 'Reaching Solutions', that In some cases, the client will decide that the risk is not worthwhile, saving the client money. Similarly, budgeting software will accurately project the legal cost of transactions, such as acquiring a business, licensing trademarks, or making financial transactions. Specialist lawyers will actually carry out the litigation or transaction work. All filing with courts and government agencies will be done electronically. Documents will be exchanged in online portals or extranets. Meetings will be held entirely by video conference.
5. Will the trend toward internationalization of law firms increase over the next twenty years? Will it engulf even the small firms?
With the globalization of the economy, law firms will develop global connections. Research may be done in India, transcript summaries may be done in the Philippines and document preparation will be done in Mexico. Law firms will become virtual operations, with many attorneys working remotely, connected to a central office by fax, email, the Web and phone. When lawyers visit the central office, they will need to reserve an office and secretary for a specified time period. This will put lawyers closer to clients and save law firms the huge expense of office leases. In many ways this will level the playing field between mega-firms and small law firms.
6. What technology change (existing or coming) will most affect law practices? Why?
Existing technology will free lawyers to work like entrepreneurs - they will be able to practice anywhere they have a phone, Internet connection and nearby airport. Changes in the ethics rules will allow them to advise clients and market their practices in any state. Clients will be able to search for lawyers using free online databases, which will show the lawyer's track record (now available in Thomson Legal Record), location (now available via AOL and Yahoo), industry familiarity, list of other clients and rate card.