The Show Must Go On - but it will be a different sort of show
Confession: I've been working as an in-house lawyer for 18 years (gulp) and, until last week, I had never been to an ILANZ Conference.
Part of the appeal of this year's conference (now in its 29th year) is that it was held in Nelson, a short skip from my new home in Mapua.
Expectations were high.
I knew the quality of the presentations and the calibre of the speakers would be high (and they were) but what I wasn't expecting was to meet so many cool like-minded people who are grappling with the same challenges and issues as me.
The theme of the conference was "The Show Must Go On." The beauty of such an open-to-interpretation theme is that you can apply your own context and purpose to ascertain a meaning that is personal to you.¹
My take on the theme has been strongly influenced by my recent shift from Wellington (pop: 200,000ish) to Mapua (pop: 2,000ish), a move which has prompted me to think a lot about the future of the legal profession and my place in it. It was apt that many speakers at the conference talked about the future of the in-house legal profession.
The future of our profession
Daniel Susskind (author and economist) Skyped from London to talk about his research and predictions for the future. "There are two futures," Daniel said, "One that is reassuringly familiar and a more efficient version of what we have today where technology is used to streamline the way we work." In the second future outlined by Daniel, the technology not only streamlines and optimises the way we work, but it actively takes on and replaces tasks undertaken by traditional professionals.
In Daniel's view (supported by his father, author and legal futurist Richard Susskind), the second future will dominate.²
What does this mean for us as in-house lawyers?
The role and tasks of a "traditional" lawyer will end.
Our role and tasks as in-house lawyers are clearly already changing. I talked to a lot of lawyers at the conference and most of them were more than legal advisors - they were risk managers, strategists, project managers, translators, counsellors, presenters, spin-doctors, relationship managers, creative modelers.
As Una Jagose (Solicitor-General) said, "We are no longer the sort of lawyers who sit at our desks, get a legal problem delivered to us, write out the answer as if there was one answer, and send it back. That approach is changing. It has not yet been completely abandoned, but it is on the way out."
Daniel Susskind reminded us that we live in a technological-based Internet society. In the future, there will be an exponential growth in technology. Systems and machines will become increasingly capable and more tasks traditionally performed by humans will be performed by machines.
Twenty years ago, Richard Susskind predicted that most legal work would be conducted via email. The UK Law Society told him he shouldn't be allowed to speak about such ideas and he was bringing the profession into disrepute.
The world is changing so fast. It is difficult to imagine the technological advances and means of information distribution that will be available by the time my kids (currently three and six) are old enough to work.
How do we prepare ourselves for such a future?
We need to be adaptable. We need to look to the future and be open to change.
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."³
We need to be innovative and integrate new technology, new systems, and new ways of working into our practice. We need to come up with imaginative ways of meeting our colleagues' legal needs and be ready to embrace future developments. This was a message echoed by many speakers at the conference, including keynote speaker Ian Taylor, owner of Animation Research Limited.
Ian emphasised that as well as trusting people, we need to trust that the technology will keep changing. "Someone out there is designing tools to help you do what you want to do," Ian said, "Believe the tools are coming, then you'll be ready for them." Or in the words of Fleetwood Mac, "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow”.
We can't hide our heads in the sand about the future.
Daniel Susskind advised that we shouldn't hold out until retirement, pretend it's not happening, or build barriers around traditional ways of working. Daniel also suggested looking beyond the legal profession for guidance, as most innovation is taking place outside the professions.
Daniel's vision of the future, in which the role of the traditional legal profession will end, is not a negative one. The future is not about unemployment - it is about redeployment. There will still be a role for us, but it will be different.
The show will go on, but it will be a different sort of show, not the one we necessarily auditioned for. We need to be ready to become other characters, embrace different tasks, seize opportunities to step into other roles.
Sarah is a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Authority. She divides her time between Wellington and Mapua and is the recipient of this year's ILANZ Scholarship.
1 A cheeky nod to section 5 of the Interpretation Act 1999.
2 For more on the Susskinds’ research and predictions, refer to The Future of the Professions, Oxford University Press, 2015.
3 Although this quote is often attributed to Charles Darwin, from On the Origin of Species, there is no substantive evidence that Darwin ever said or wrote it and its true source and origin is unclear.