In 10 years' time lawyers are likely to have a raft of new legislation to work with, including a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act.
But what other changes will have taken place? Will barristers still be wearing wigs? Perhaps the courts will be overrun by solicitor advocates, or maybe cases will be heard by virtual judges.
The Lawyer asked a selection of legal figures to make their predictions for change over the next decade and found the profession in a relatively positive mood as it heads towards the millennium.
Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf, whose Access to Justice report on the civil justice system will spell major changes to legal practice, comments that practice has become much more commercial and specialist in approach. “Over the next 10 years, the legal profession and legal practice will become more dependent on technology for providing services. Those services will be offered at a fixed or budget cost, and will be multi-skilled,” he says.
Heather Hallett QC, vice chair at the Bar Council, agrees that new technology will transform practice at the Bar. “Computer skills will be as much a necessity for the young barrister as a degree,” she says.
“We should like to see all statutes and law reports accessible to the legal Internet surfer.
“As far as the lay surfer is concerned, basic guidance on the law will become increasingly available down the wire. This will have the effect of deferring the stage at which you need a lawyer. The effect on the Bar and on solicitors is impossible to determine.”
She adds: “I doubt that the Bar will continue to grow at the rate that it has done over the last few years. I have absolutely no doubt, however, that in 10 years time the Bar will be thriving.”
Vicki Chapman, policy officer at the Legal Action Group, also thinks new technology will play an important role in the future. “New technology must be used to transform the delivery of legal services to the poor through, for example, interactive videos in court. There will be an inevitable growth in the number of litigants-in-person and I hope there will be a complete review of how they are serviced.”
She adds that alternative dispute resolution might be used more in the future, but stresses that it is not an alternative to lawyers.
Jane Betts, secretary general at the Law Society, says: “One certainty is that life will not become less complicated. Solicitors will find themselves having to guide their clients through a world where the pace of change is forever accelerating and where the choices clients can make are more numerous and difficult. Although IT will become ever more important for the profession, the expertise, intellectual rigour and problem-solving skills of solicitors will be of even greater value.
“The great challenge for the Law Society is having to regulate professional standards without undermining the profession's ability to compete. To do this the society must be both lean and relevant.”
Marlene Winfield, senior policy officer for legal services at the National Consumer Council, predicts that courts will become “resolution centres where people with disputes will choose from a variety of imaginative ways to resolve them”. Solicitors, she says, will be renamed “facilitators” and will provide a varied service from representation to coaching people to represent themselves.
Richard Jenner, policy officer at the Advice Services Alliance, says the priority for the advice sector in the next 10 years is to see a restoration of eligibility levels for legal aid.
“Assuming that there is not going to be any extra money to increase eligibility, we need to be looking at ways in which savings can be made.
“We think it inevitable that fee levels will be looked at, particularly barristers' fees. We do expect to see a wider range of providers of legal services, particularly from the advice sector, and we also expect to see an increase in the number of advice agencies employing lawyers,” he says.
He also predicts increased use of block contracts in some areas of law, extension of franchising, and increased use of accreditation schemes.
“Subject to resources we would like to see some innovation, such as increased communication between lawyers and agencies through computer networks,” he says.
In another area of practice where there have been substantial changes, David Salter, chair of the Solicitors Family Law Association, comments: “There will obviously be an increased focus on mediation, but the majority of cases will still be dealt with by conventional means, with lawyers having to adapt to the philosophy of the Family Law Act.”
For the City perspective, The Lawyer spoke to two partners who were quoted back in its first issue.
Travers Smith Braithwaite managing partner Alasdair Douglas says: “It is unlikely that there will be fewer firms. As long as London remains one of the top financial centres in the world, there will be a need for a wide range of firms. Lawyers, perhaps more than accountants, are quick to see conflicts of interest and for that reason large transactions always need numerous law firms.
“The major challenge for the future is to make sure that private practice is an attractive long-term prospect for bright young lawyers. There is more to life than working all hours, and firms must be aware of this to keep their staff.”
Slaughter and May partner Michael Pescod says that the chances of accurately forecasting the changes of the next 10 years are slim, but he makes a few guesses: “First, attempts will continue to be made to create global law firms of one kind or another, all of which will tend to be unstable and low margin. Second, no US firm will become a leading player in London; correspondingly no UK law firms will become leading players in New York. Third, there will be great opportunities for niche players with flair and determination.”
David Lewis, senior partner at Norton Rose says: “Looking forward 10 years, the legal market will be very different. There will have been a transatlantic merger, possibly more than one, probably also one of the Big Six accountancy firms will have picked up a top 15, even a top 10 law firm. Within 10 years, large global firms will be offering one-stop service wherever the client wants it, so it will be very, very different.
“If you look at what has happened to accountants over the past 10 to 15 years, that will happen in the legal market – there will be greater depth of resources and a greater concentration on the core areas – as well as better management.”
Tim Readman, chair of the Sole Practitioners Group, agrees, and says he is confident about the future: “Sole practitioners will be thriving due to a strong expansion of niche practices, coupled with a marked increase in general practice that is due to public insistence on personal attention and value for money.”
And what of those who are entering the profession now, and will be the leading lawyers in the 21st century?
Chief Executive of the College of Law, Professor Nigel Savage considers that “things tend to go in 10 year cycles – with the Legal Practice Course, we have a course which will improve as it goes along.
“In the future, there be a lot more technology and less need for attendance at institutions, and there will be much more flexibility, with law likely to become more of a post-graduate discipline.
“In terms of numbers, the demand of firms for potential partners will be lower, but the demand for graduates will remain or increase – one change is likely to be a greater employment of paralegals and the creation of career structures to meet that demand. There will be fewer law firms and also much more Government regulation and less self-regulation.
“The profession will become more and more polarised and divide into separate camps such as litigators, corporate financiers, and others; there will also be more niches and associations and education streams – that is already happening. Over the next 10 years, legal education like legal practice will become a global business, in a brave new legal world.” And, perhaps, even the first £500,000 trainee…
Professionalism for the 1990s and beyond
The acid test of professionalism is whether people feel they can trust you to do the right thing. In these terms, the legal profession has lost a great deal of its professionalism in the last 10 years, along with most other so-called professions.
Clients no longer believe that individual lawyers and firms will always put the client's interest ahead of their own (which is surely one of the oldest definitions of professionalism).
The rapid rise in detailed scrutiny and questioning of legal bills is testimony to this. Clients do not trust lawyers to handle their affairs in such a way as to minimise the expense to the client.
It is not only among clients that trust and professionalism has been lost. Junior lawyers used to believe that, if they worked hard, firms would make sincere efforts to train them, and further, that the firm cared about them and wanted them to succeed. Junior lawyers no longer trust the partners to do this and think (often accurately) that the partners view them as fungible billable hour machines.
Partners no longer even trust each other. As merit-based compensation systems have spread, and as firms have grown through mergers and lateral hires, partners know each other less and are less inclined to 'do favours' for each other; they do not trust each other to “do the right thing”. There is less sharing going on, more hoarding of work and clients, and less willingness to do things for the general well-being of the firm.
If professionalism means being trusted by others to act according to the highest standards and a clear set of principles, then professionalism is in decay. The good news is that some individuals and firms do operate to the highest standards, excel at winning the trust of others, and are reaping the commercial benefits that flow from this. Increasingly, I believe and hope, the short-term principle-free expediency of the early and mid-1990s will give way to the realisation that the noble path does truly win. How much you are trusted is a good indicator of your future success in professional life.