REUTERS | David Mdzinarishvili

An age of rapid change and the in-house lawyer’s role

I attended Practical Law’s GC Leadership Summit last week. A recurring theme throughout the day was change and we explored some of the broad range of challenges businesses and workers – and, in particular, lawyers – are facing in a time of turbulent disruption and transformation driven by technology, economics, politics and societal change. Resilience became a watchword of the day, offering us a large part of the antidote.

We were plunged straight into the storm by keynote speaker, futurologist Dr James Bellini of the Hudson Institute, who drew on the sobering statistic that the average corporate lifespan is in rapid decline and is now only around 15 years. This tightening of the screws on businesses is mirrored by the dynamics impacting workers. While human productivity continues to progress in a linear fashion, the “hockey stick” of exponential growth in technological productivity is fast outstripping us in key areas and will continue to expand its role at the expense of human beings.

Machines are learning to do an increasing number of the tasks that humans used to base long and reliable careers on. Dr Bellini suggests that the “Singularity”, the point at which artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence, may not happen until 2045 but we have already entered “Industry 4.0”. This era of rapid automation and data exchange is both a threat and an opportunity for all, including in-house lawyers.

Dr Bellini whistled through several interesting, and at times eye-watering, forecasts and trends. He foresees:

  • An explosion in the wellbeing industry as humans adapt to the robotic age.
  • Rapid development of renewable energy and the battery technology for decentralised energy storage.
  • Continued government-led interest in aerospace.
  • Big data getting ever bigger, the Internet of Things entering the mainstream and cyber risks presenting ever greater challenges.
  • 4D printing allowing us to create 3D objects that change over time.
  • As pressure on land intensifies, food production increasingly taking place in vertical farms (already widespread in Singapore) and underground (already happening under the streets of Clapham in London).
  • Humans being forced to move away from unsustainable red meat and are likely to be eating insects on a wide scale within the next twenty years.
  • The era of the “anywhere economy” and gigonomics continuing; delivery by drone and the virtual reality retail experience well on their way.
  • The retirement age will be abolished.

We then turned our attention to the legal team of the future. The discussions generated a number of interesting observations and hypotheses by the speakers:

  • Humanity and humanism will be important. Lawyers are intelligent and curious individuals who frequently ask “why are we here?”. Leaders need to listen and ensure there is a purpose to change.
  • Millennials, in particular, have an acute awareness of “sustainability” in the human sense. There is a trend away from status-seeking and the associated risk of burnout towards merit, reward, justice and the reinvigoration of the concept of lawyers as the conscience of the company who proactively promote “doing the right thing”. Leaders need to ensure the legal team of the future and its purpose align with these societal shifts.
  • Resilience will be key both for individuals and the team. Humans will need to preserve their relevance in the face of competition from machines.
  • An increasingly pronounced dichotomy in career choice between more disconnected remote working and more connected office working is already emerging. But it is felt by some that the so-called water cooler conversation will remain essential for lawyers looking to dig under the surface and uncover the true risks that an organisation faces.
  • As a counterpoint to this, the diversity question represents a challenge but primarily an opportunity. Attracting the best talent will require further accommodation of individual circumstances, leveraging technology to enable true virtual office working and promoting a keen eye on alternative entry routes into the profession, such as lawyer apprenticeships. Gaining access to the most diverse talent pool possible will be essential to building the resilient legal team of the future.
  • Cyber resilience will necessitate concentrated focus on business continuity in the event of attacks, translating into lawyers who understand and direct how the organisation talks outside: to the media, customers and supply chains.
  • Understanding technology and how it fits the organisation will become key for in-house lawyers. They will need to engage in regular dialogue directly with tech suppliers, not just at RFP and contract stage.

Challenges lie ahead but an optimistic note was struck throughout the day about the in-house lawyer’s continuing relevance. In a world of machines fed a diet of big data, humans who truly understand the world and are able to ask the right questions thereby eliciting the best data, will be vital. This should be natural territory for lawyers and offers a major part of the path forward for the profession as it positions itself alongside its AI colleagues.

Rob Beardmore

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