Over the past year of researching legal technology and learning more systemic ways of thinking about the future, I have become quite interested in the discipline of futurism especially the work of Amy Webb. What most interests me about it is looking at the present and trying to extrapolate what current trends mean for the future in the short, medium, and long terms. I am less interested in looking out many years and saying what I think will happen without showing the work of how I got there, so here is my view of the legal technology, practice, and information future and what it holds for all of us looking out from early 2021:
Near term (1-2 years)
COVID-19, the way the pandemic is handled, and the ways we move on from it, will affect us all for some time. There will be continued emphasis on both remote access to needed services and community, and personal connections and experiences. Preexisting pressures in technology development and adoption will also continue. The changes from COVID on the practice of law and society will be the most dominant issues for the next 1-2 years, with other issues that were prevalent before coming back to importance as that time period progresses.
Public health (COVID-19)
- The rate of technology adoption will increase, especially for technologies facilitating remote access.
- The ways lawyers practice will change and become more technology driven.
- Courts and legislatures will operate differently.
- Project delays will be ongoing as people deal with fall out from COVID-19.
- Courts and law firms will increase remote access.
- Increased regulation of technologies such as the internet of things that have unaddressed privacy concerns, especially as businesses develop and are possibly sold.
- More powerful privacy legislation, which will require higher technical requirements from technology planning and systems, for example, it will need to be possible to extract individual’s data from machine learning systems.
- Rich people did relatively well during the pandemic and poor people did badly, leading to increased inequality. This will increase existing paired pressures to maintain the status quo and bring in reforms.
- First regulatory sandboxes in Canada will be established.
- Some sectors will rebound after the pandemic, some will go back to something like normal, and some will do worse.
- The stock market seems overpriced because of an excess of investment. Whether it stays that way will depend on issues such as whether people want to take their money out, whether people start shorting it or engage in other activities that will bring it down, or people lose confidence because the economy doesn’t do as well in recovery.
- There may be negative interest rates which can be anticipated to increase investment, but they would also negatively affect the legal non-profit space in Canada as law foundations’ revenues and their grants are driven by interest paid on lawyers’ trust accounts.
- People are starved for human contact and will seek it out.
- There will continue to be fewer large gatherings than before the pandemic for the foreseeable future.
- Social anxiety and agoraphobia will remain higher than before the pandemic.
- Political instability internationally.
- Increased calls for government accountability.
- Machine learning moves toward increased commercialization and economic viability.
- Increased access and technological development using data will require content. Some content development will be driven by productivity gains such as automated summaries and annotations, but much will still require human effort and insight to develop.
- Remote communication continues to increase in importance after the pandemic.
- The digital divide continues to increase.
- Increased risks for cyber-security threats.
- Blockchain enters the plateau of productivity.
Medium term (2-5 years)
In the medium term data-based applications in law will be more widely developed and adopted. Regulators will continue to open up new business models and technologies over this time frame. The market for high end legal services will be impacted or disrupted, especially where they are undifferentiated, in areas of law that don’t change much, and where technology hasn’t been adopted to increase efficiency. The market for undifferentiated legal services will grow, but more of it will be served by lower cost innovative entrants. This will increase the overall market size for legal services, but it will be uncomfortable for some incumbents.
- A new normal will emerge as we move on from COVID-19.
- Lingering effects of COVID-19 for survivors will be most felt by people who didn’t get treatment for other illnesses during the pandemic and those who were infected and experienced permanent damage.
- The number of deaths among the elderly during the pandemic will relieve some of the pressure on long term care and medical systems, but there will be less tolerance for neglect of the living.
- Governments will move to resolve issues involving privacy in public but obscure documents like case law.
- Economic inequality will be a bigger political issue and lead to initiatives like tax reform.
- Inequality will intensify leading to a continued focus on high and low end products and services with less opportunity for businesses aimed at middle income consumers.
- Technology and business model disruption will affect many lawyers’ incomes.
- Changing cost points and increased efficiency through regulatory, business model, and technology innovation will increase market size.
- Lawyers will continue to become more tech savvy as the generation used to having extensive support staff decreases.
- Millennials will be a larger majority of working professionals.
- The first lawyers trained using new educational models will enter the profession.
- Many technologies will become more affordable.
- Machine learning will become viable for smaller datasets, which will make it much more applicable to many legal applications.
- More work lawyers currently do by hand will be automated, creating the potential for issues for loss of work and revenue for lawyers and law firms and opportunities to develop business models using the new tools.
Long term (5+ years)
The effects of the covid-19 pandemic will continue to be felt, but they will be integrated into the new normal. Automation will continue for routine tasks, but in law there will be significant conflict between human and computing needs with the needs for human process, negotiation, and culture ultimately prevailing. Legal businesses will continue to be under pressure, but new approaches to innovation, technology adoption, and business models will help them become more responsive.
- Will revert to underlying, long term issues, such as increased elderly populations.
- There will be continued risks of pandemics due to endemic viruses in bat populations in Southern China that have already crossed species barriers several times in 20 yrs (among other sources).
- Public health may be better able to handle new health crises given the lessons learned and infrastructure developed during this pandemic.
- Governments will start to develop more born digital documents, which will work better in computer applications.
- The tensions between right and left, rural and urban, and classes will continue to be issues.
- Born computer friendly documents, and a computing paradigm shift in governance will expose limitations on integrating computing into law that derive from the complexities of human relationships, negotiations, and politics that cannot have all ambiguity removed.
- Governments will have to initiate policy interventions to address inequality, this is likely to be driven by tax policy and be international in scope and led by the United States with tax havens less able to shelter money under the political pressure.
- AI operators will come into conflict with organized political pressure from populations and elected officials. The power to engage in automation will be limited in some ways.
- Pressures for use of automating technology will continue.
- More tasks and jobs will be automated with less routine work protected.
- There will be continued reduction in fertility.
- Millennials will make up a substantial majority of working people, including early and mid-career people.
- The limits of traditional legal documents as sources of data will be a major brake on the development of AI tools.
- Emerging data and document standards aimed at being more machine accessible will be developed and adopted. This will need to be balanced with consideration of the human needs for governance, fairness, and community.
I don’t think there is anything particularly surprising in these predictions, and I didn’t write this column with the goal of being provocative. It’s more that I know many people have been hesitant to plan in the last year, and I want to move toward conceptualizing a future that makes sense to me and that I can plan for. I’d like to thank my colleagues Xavier Beauchamp-Tremblay and Alisa Lazear, and Steve Matthews who discussed this with me and made some key suggestions.
I’d be interested to hear your predictions or how you disagree with what I have written.
Frey, Carl Benedikt. 2019. The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Webb, Amy. “How Futurists Cope With Uncertainty | by Amy Webb | The Startup | Medium.” Medium, March 11, 2020. https://medium.com/swlh/how-futurists-cope-with-uncertainty-a4fbdff4b8c6.
———. “How to Do Strategic Planning Like a Futurist.” Harvard Business Review, July 30, 2019. https://hbr.org/2019/07/how-to-do-strategic-planning-like-a-futurist.
———. The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016.