Today, when individuals or businesses seek legal advice, they do so because they need practical guidance based on knowledge and experience of the law. Traditionally, lawyers have provided this by offering an advisory service on a consultative basis. But if similar consultations could be obtained elsewhere, would clients remain loyal or jump ship?
Evidence suggests that the latter scenario would be the case, as long as the new service was cheaper, quicker or better. This sets up a major challenge for today's lawyers in the increasingly competitive legal services market.
The aim must be twofold: to investigate and devise innovative techniques for the provision of legal information, guidance, knowledge and expertise; and to face the market, gain a better understanding of clients' needs and develop new ways of meeting those requirements.
I believe that information technology (IT) can and should provide the basis for an entirely different kind of legal service. Apart from automating and streamlining traditional working methods, IT should be used to build applications which will eventually help to re-engineer the entire legal process and result in significant changes in the way legal services are delivered.
During the next 10 to 20 years, I envisage that legal guidance will no longer be delivered exclusively through an advisory service. Instead, it is likely, in certain cases, to be packaged as an information service.
For example, a vast, latent legal market will probably be realised on the Internet (the global on-line information service), giving everyone – not only lawyers – ready and inexpensive access to legal guidance obtained through a variety of legal products and information sources.
The focus of such services will be on helping individuals and businesses with their legal affairs where, in the past, direct consultation with lawyers would have proved too costly or impracticable.
It is likely that much of today's market for high-value, complex advisory legal services will remain. And, although IT will render it more efficient, the need for human involvement and judgement will prevail. But I predict that a great deal of the more routine legal work, which takes up much of our profession's time, will gradually be systematised and proceduralised, becoming unprofitable for lawyers to undertake.
For those who suffer from the loss of this second market, a third 'latent' market may offer a road to recovery. For lawyers to be involved, however, they will need to shift mind-set and change their working methods, because they will no longer be advisers. Instead, they will act as legal information engineers, who base their practice around the legal guidance systems. In turn, they will charge users for access to such systems.
So, for many lawyers, my message is more serious than a prediction of automation with a following major change in the practice of law. I believe that a failure on the part of lawyers to embrace this latest phase of the IT revolution may result in commercial suicide.
Change in business is unsettling, and one which threatens to erode traditional markets is even more so. But the law is not there to support the livelihoods of those who offer advice about it, any more than the purpose of ill health is to keep doctors gainfully employed. If the demands and interests of society bring about a beneficial shift in the legal infrastructure, why shouldn't lawyers develop their entrepreneurial talents to align skills with the new ways of working if they wish to continue to make a living?
The legal profession should learn from the introduction of IT into other industries, where, after initially being greeted with scepticism and hostility, it has thrown up some marvellous commercial opportunities. In law, these are ripe for exploitation by those who are prepared to think imaginatively and strategically about their future.