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2040 vision: Lawyers look at the future

December 30, 2015
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(IL Illustration/Brad Turner)

Almost universally, today’s legal professionals predict that in 25 years lawyers will be doing more complex work while machines will handle the routine tasks.

As part of Indiana Lawyer’s commemoration of its silver anniversary this year, we asked a varied group of attorneys to look ahead to the year 2040. They outlined what they thought the profession would be like, how they hoped the profession would change, and what they did not want the profession to become.

No one sees the advance of technology slowing. But the new capabilities of software and the rise of online legal services will have lawyers returning to their former roles as counselors, giving legal advice and helping clients solve their problems.

“Looking forward is never all that easy, but if you don’t do it a little bit, you lose track of what the opportunities might be,” said retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard.

More complex thinking

As technology takes over the everyday chores of legal work, lawyers will be left with handling complicated, intricate issues that require a greater level of knowledge and skill.

boehmig-jason-mug Boehmig

“I don’t think lawyers are going away,” said Jason Boehmig, a Notre Dame Law School graduate and CEO of the legal services firm Ironclad Inc. “I think there will always be a place for skilled counsel, but the non-legal advice (aspect of the profession) will go away.”

Software for lawyers will be able to do things like simple contracts or employment agreements more efficiently, more accurately and at a lower cost. In addition, people will become more and more comfortable turning to online legal services for help with minor matters.

Still, lawyers will have plenty of work to do, helping clients navigate laws and regulations in complex matters.

daniels Daniels

Corporations, in particular, will expect their outside counsel to provide value to their business, said Deborah Daniels, managing partner at Krieg DeVault LLP. Attorneys will be called upon to become part of the team and help companies develop strategies for growth.

Old becomes new again

“People will come back to realizing the value of a lawyer as a counselor,” said Ann Marie Waldron of Waldron Law in Indianapolis.

Currently, she sees that many attorneys have become order takers, filling out forms and not thinking through what’s best for their clients. But she’s hopeful lawyers will return to doing the hard work of advising clients on their best options.

As lawyers counsel their clients on more complex matters, they will develop more specialized areas of knowledge. They will have to have greater expertise in certain aspects of the law to handle the legal issues.

Specialization could also be fueled by a national law license, said James Dimos, deputy executive director of the American Bar Association. Speaking for himself and not on behalf of the ABA, Dimos envisioned licenses being granted in federal areas of the law, such as immigration, for attorneys practicing in federal courts.

Cameron Cameron

Chester Cameron Jr., associate at the Kenneth J. Allen Law Group LLC in Valparaiso, is anticipating a renaissance for trial attorneys. He believes the path to more courtroom work has been paved by the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Hughley v. State of Indiana, which affirmed when material facts are in dispute, the questions should be settled by a jury.

“At the end of the day, people come to court not only to have a judge apply the law but also to have a jury decide the facts,” Cameron said. “Juries are better at deciding facts than lawyers.”

Location and competition

Lawyers working remotely will only increase during the next quarter century.

Attorneys foresee the rise of virtual law firms with no physical address that boast a roster of attorneys spread across the country. And routine court appearances regarding motions or pretrial conferences will take place by way of video conferencing. Lawyers and clients will meet less in person and use technology to communicate with each other more.

abrams Abrams

With the changes, the mid-size firms of 25 to 75 attorneys may be squeezed from the market. Jeffrey Abrams, partner at Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP, believes mergers will continue and big firms will leverage technology to take on more business clients, starving the medium-sized firms.

Adding to the competition for clients will be deregulation, said Brian Powers, attorney and founder of legal tech startup PactSafe. Entrepreneurs will flow into the legal services market and non-lawyers will be licensed to do some legal work as well as possibly share ownership in law firms.

Like Boehmig, Powers does not expect lawyers to become obsolete. Their critical-thinking abilities and experience-based advice cannot be reproduced by a machine. But lawyers cannot ignore technology.

“The legal profession needs to do a better job as a whole of embracing and leveraging technology,” Powers said. “The firms and lawyers who do both of those over then next 25 years are the ones that will be thriving. The rest will be extinct.”

Still a people profession

While attorneys welcome the new technology designed to help them do their jobs, they don’t want to lose the human element in the profession.

The best part of his career, said Abrams, is being able to work with people who are intelligent and enjoyable. He wants to keep individuals like that in the profession so that legal business continues to be run by people rather than machines.

Shepard wants the profession to retain its spirit. He wants it to remain self-governing and independent with lawyers working to ensure their clients receive fair treatment and are protected from harm.

Dimos echoed Shepard’s sentiment.

“I would hope that we don’t lose sight of why we all became lawyers, which was to help people solve problems,” he said.•

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