What will the law firm of the future look like?

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Time travellers from 100 years ago would find the modern law firm a curious beast: On the one hand, litigators spend their days preparing pleadings and giving oral argument in court; transactional lawyers spend their days preparing and reviewing contracts, deeds and agreements. Lawyers in 2023 do pretty much the same thing. On the other hand, the way in which that work is carried out is radically different. Law firms are increasingly diverse, and no longer the sole province of the most privileged in society. And instead of doing everything by hand, or dictating to clerical staff, lawyers are expected to be adept with a range of different tech tools.

Perhaps it is a bit unrealistic to try and predict what law firms will look like in another 100 years. But what about in another 10 years? Here we try and draw out the key features of law firms ten years from now.

The risk with predictions…

Significant changes in business models are often driven by unpredictable events — it took a global pandemic to normalize remote work, after all. And where we do try and see into the future, we often give undue emphasis to the latest fads — consider how 1989’s Back to the Future II predicted we would have three fax machines in our living room in 2015.

Some legal profession predictions that never panned out:

  • Diversifying into non-legal services— it was predicted in 1989 that law firms would go the way of accountancy and become broader professional services firms: For example, in 2022 Deloitte earned the majority of its revenue from consulting, financial and risk advisory, and only 20 percent from traditional accounting services. This trend to move outside core business has not been replicated in law. The largest law firms still make the overwhelming majority of their income in legal services.
  • Widespread offshoring of legal services. It has been predicted numerous times, as recently as 2008, that as with customer support and IT,  procedural or process-related legal work would be routinely outsourced overseas to save on payroll costs. According to 2021 statistics (see page 9), of 12 major industries, law is the least likely to utilize FTEs located outside the company.

Our predictions for 2033

Without further ado, here are our law firm predictions for the coming decade.

1. Flexible work arrangements will become commonplace

Demographics don’t lie: The legal profession is getting more diverse, and is employing more women than ever. This means that in order to attract and retain the best staff, law firms will need to be more supportive of employees with childcare responsibilities. This is partly about supporting remote and hybrid work, but also flexibility around working hours, training, promotion and compensation structures. For example, the traditional apprenticeship model of new attorneys following Partners around will need to give way to a more intentional and structured approach to workplace training. Law firms will also need to address the persisting gender pay gap and consider how they can best support women to become equity Partners.

2. A high standard of data security will be normalized

With more and more attorneys working remotely, the potential for a cyber-attack, or the inadvertent release of confidential/privileged client data has increased and will continue to do so. Expect to see, in response to this, a more rigorous enforcement of cybersecurity good practice: VPNs, 2FA and enforced password policies will be the norm. But we may also see a reduction in potential attack surfaces through a requirement that work only be carried out on dedicated work assets and, in some cases, dedicated routers.

3. An increased emphasis on wellbeing

Lawyer mental health is at crisis point:  A survey from the New Jersey State Bar Association found that 28% of lawyers in that state were thinking about leaving due to poor mental health, burnout or stress. In ALM’s 2023 lawyer mental health survey the results were even more disturbing —  in a survey of 3,000 lawyers, a whopping 71.1% of lawyers said they had anxiety, and 38.2% said they were depressed. And this represented a substantial increase compared to the previous year’s survey.

If law firms are to retain their staff, they will need to think carefully about employee wellness and how they can adapt the workplace to better support employee mental health. The things we have already mentioned, remote and flexible work will be part of that. But it will also be about rethinking enduring elements of the lawyer business model — such as the emphasis on speed and billable hours — which are arguably not conductive to employee wellbeing.

4. Seamless integration of legal tech and machine learning tools

Expect to see a continued growth in the uptake of specific tech tools, such as e-discovery and predictive analysis software, but also expect to see increased integration of those tools with each other. This may happen through integration partnerships between different providers, but we predict also that there will be more mergers and acquisitions in legal tech, consolidating the industry into a few key players with multi-faceted platforms. We expect that at one point there will be just one user interface for lawyers that will enable document review, prediction of litigation outcomes, contract analysis, advanced legal research and automated billing.

Forecasting the future of law firms

What themes do we see when trying to predict what law firms will look like in the future? Our four predictions really boil down to two things: putting people first and the continual advancement in tech tools for lawyers. Without both these things, law firms will struggle to retain the best staff, and work processes will start to stagnate.

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