Back to the Future of Lawyers

For the Generation X lawyers on this site, 2015 has special significance. This was the year that Marty McFly from Back to the Future II travelled to, specifically on October 21, 2015.

Many of us who saw this movie back in 1989 wondered how much of this fictional reality would actually come true. One prediction in particular is of interest to those of us who have ended up being lawyers,

Marty McFly: You said this had to do with my kids.

Doc: Look what happens to your son.

Marty McFly: [Reading the newspaper from 2015] “Within two hours of his arrest, Martin McFly Jr. was tried, convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in the state penitentiary.”? Within two hours?

Doc: The justice system works swiftly in the future now that they’ve abolished all lawyers.

It’s unlikely that lawyers will actually be extinct within the next 10 months. There is plenty of discussion about the future of the profession, including the CBA Futures Report and debates over Alternative Business Structures (ABS). But this statement does illustrate a popular misconception that delays in the legal system, and in particular in criminal law, can be attributed to the role of lawyers.

One prediction in the film which we have seen more of in our lives is greater automation. The movie uses remote dog walkers, automatic garbage containers, and virtual waiters in restaurants. Although none of these actually exist, we do assume that technology and automation will play a greater role in the legal services of the future.

When Marty escapes from Biff’s gang on November 7, 1955, he bumps into two people coming out of the Hill Valley Courthouse, presumably a lawyer and an assistant. The accident results in a pile of papers being spilled everywhere. That’s a past that is unfortunately still with our present, and our immediate future, though many of us look forward to the day when practice is paperless.

There is an even more significant lesson in the exchange in the movie, illustrated by what happens next in the 2015 future,

Doc: It gets worse. Your daughter tries to break him out and gets sent up for 20 years…

This one event starts a chain reaction that completely destroys your entire family… I backtracked everything to this one event. We’re here to prevent this event from happening.

Where justice happens too swiftly, without procedural fairness and proper oversight, people will lose confidence in the system and take matters into their own hands.

Lawyers play an important role in ensuring that there are proper checks and balances and that constitutional safeguards are observed. This is not a function that computers can do, in any estimation of the future of practice.

We expect that practice will change, and for some, we embrace that change. The one thing we should hope to address more than anything else is the public perception that lawyers play the role as problem-solvers who assist those in legal disputes, instead of hindering its proper resolution.

If there’s a time machine where we can go back and change where this perception began, I would be the first to volunteer to ride that ship (or a DeLorean DMC-12, as used in the film). In absence of such innovation, we can effect such change by ensuring that the legal reforms to come emphasize how lawyers, even when being vigorous advocates, actually advance practical solutions for society, and not create further problems.

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