The Future of Lawyering
When I was a lad, we knew what the future would bring.
It was going to involve piloting our flying cars to the office, holidays on Mars and taking our dinners in the form of nutri pills, because everyone would be too busy to do something as stone aged as cutting up vegetables. We also thought those nifty new digital watches from Japan would kill the Swiss watch industry.
What we got instead was hundred thousand dollar COEs, work by Zoom, and roti prata delivered to our homes by a fellow on an electric scooter.
Also young associates blowing their bonuses on Swiss watches.
It seems we were right to think the future would bring great changes, but were laughably bad at predicting what those changes will be.
With that caveat firmly lodged, I will now offer some thoughts on the future of lawyering. Just remember these are the thoughts of a fellow who was spectacularly wrong about the future of roti prata.
The Billable Hour Goes Plastic Straw
There is an old adage in the common law; maternity is a fact, but paternity is an opinion. It means who a child’s mother is can be proved with certainty, but the identity of the father is at best an inference based on circumstantial evidence. Of course that proposition is no longer valid now that we have DNA evidence.
Another old adage is that only two ancient professions charge by hour. Lawyers being one of them. That saying also has been overtaken by events. The billable hour alas, much like the plastic straw, has become increasingly rare. Today, the “rack rates no caps” file is as hard to find as an empty seat on the MRT on a weekday morning.
This might all seem very non-relatable to you right now, but it has a very great effect on the staffing requirements of law firms. With the billable hour system, the firm does well if many lawyers work many hours on a matter. In a world of capped fees or fixed fees, the priority is to reduce the cost of production. That means the pressure is to do the work with fewer hours, fewer lawyers and cheaper lawyers. Outsourcing begins to make sense. So does automation.
Zoom and Doom
The legal profession is usually slow to adopt new technologies. A train moves only as fast as its slowest coach. In a law firm, that slowest coach was usually the most senior lawyer in the firm. The Covid pandemic changed all that. It compressed 10 years’ worth of technological acceptance into 10 months. Almost overnight, we all had to accept technologies that enabled us to work from home. The pandemic is over, but the genie won’t go back into the bottle. Today, work from home is accepted by law firms, to varying degrees.
Is this a good thing for junior lawyers? The advantages are many to be sure. There is also danger. Once the bosses get used to working with associates who are not physically there with them, there is no particular reason why the associate has to be living in Singapore. She could for example be living in a much lower cost country, with a much lower salary.
When I was called to the Bar Singapore had only one law school and my competitors were my classmates. Today, your competitors are anyone in a similar time zone who can perform the same function as you. Consider the English speaking common law jurisdictions that fit that description. Malaysia, Brunei, India and Perth being the most obvious.
An Iphone is designed in the USA but the production is outsourced to Asia. Is that dynamic very different for a pleading or a mortgage deed?
ChatGPT Stole My Job
If you have just been called, you likely know just how powerful and useful ChatGPT is. It will only get more powerful and useful. My advice to young lawyers is this: do not let the old guys find out about ChatGPT. Keep it a secret from them as long as you can.
I assume of course, that no young lawyer reading this has ever used ChatGPT to produce a draft which he later passes to his partner. However, the time is already in sight when a lot of the work now done by junior lawyers can be done by ChatGPT or similar programs. Providing the first draft of a pleading or advice, doing a first cut of a research memo, these are the tasks traditionally done by junior lawyers. When that becomes automated, how many junior lawyers will a firm need?
True it is, a human associate will still be able to do certain things a program cannot, but a program is much cheaper, plus it does not mock its bosses on singaporelawmeme or complain about its bonus.
Is this going to be a good thing or a bad thing? Getting in the inevitable Star Wars quote now, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
On one view, ChatGPT takes the drudgery out of lawyering, in the same way that electric light took the drudgery out of having to start a fire every time you needed to find your way to the bathroom at night. On another view, ChatGPT is going to lead to widespread joblessness, in a manner not seen since Covid caused mass unemployment amongst night club bouncers.
Both views are correct. The best analogy is what happened to secretaries in law firms in over the last 30 years. There are those still in practice who can remember when lawyering was done via typewritten paper, every piece of which was manually typed out on a typewriter. To support this, every lawyer had a dedicated secretary, and companies had typing pools, employees whose only job was to interpret your chicken-scratching-like handwritten draft and type it out.
All that changed when computers came in, and lawyers learnt to do their own typing. Today, law firms still have secretaries, but they employ far fewer secretaries than they used to. Secretaries today have a different job function compared to 30 years ago. It will be quite hard to be employed as a secretary today if your only skills were typing and answering the telephone.
The same will happen with junior lawyers. When many of the functions that used to be performed by junior lawyers become automated, firms will still need junior lawyers, but firms will need fewer of them, and the job description will change. On the plus side, those junior lawyers that are left won’t have to do as much boring stuff like legal research, or due diligence, or turning up at the office on time.
Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
We have looked at the death of the billable hour, work from home technologies and AI writing programs. We have considered each of these drivers of change in isolation. In the real word, drivers of change do not work in isolation. Everything works everywhere and all at once. That is why it is so difficult to guess the future from this swirling minestrone soup of change drivers. One thing that does seem likely to emerge is that the structure of law firms will change quite radically.
The Pyramid Becomes a Ladder
The typical big law firm today is a pyramid. Many junior lawyers at the bottom, far fewer senior lawyers at the top. Their bean counters use words like “gearing”. That structure made sense in the world of the billable hour.
In a world where cost of production becomes the key driver to profit, where the technology exists to lower production cost by automation or outsourcing, law firms will evolve to looking more like ladders than pyramids. Roughly the same number of lawyers at each rung of seniority.
For the young lawyers, it means law firms will have fewer available starting positions; there is much more space at the bottom of a pyramid than on the bottom rung of a ladder. However, once you are on that bottom rung, a higher percentage of these lawyers will stay in the firm compared to the pyramid model.
So Big Firm or Boutique Firm for Me?
I have heard it said that when you work in a big firm, you have to worry about gossiping secretaries, useless juniors, backstabbing peers, oppressive seniors and your crazy boss.
When you work in a boutique firm you only have to worry about your crazy boss. The fellow who told me this has since migrated, so infer from that what you will.
Anything I say about the big firm/boutique firm question is necessarily based on past experience. Having predicted that the structure of law firms will change radically in the future, I am not sure any statement based on past experience would be helpful to you when you consider your options. What I can do is to make some observations which I think have a decent chance staying relevant to your future.
First, whether you will be happy in a big firm or a boutique firm depends more on your personality than it does on the firm. Some follows do better in a more structured environment while others do better with more freedom. Not everyone can be happy at the same place.
Second, looking at those in practice today, we find it is more common than not for a person to change firms in the course of a career. Sometimes several times, and to change between big firms and boutique firms. Joining your first law firm now is no longer the feudal oath of lifelong fealty it was in decades past. So don’t worry about type of firm you should start your career in. The stakes are not really that high.
Compared to past times, today there are many more ways to participate in the legal industry. The choice is not just between a big firm or a boutique firm. In house lawyering is a big part of the legal industry. Gig type work is increasingly popular with those that like the independent lifestyle, and structures now exist to enable that. The variety of options will only increase in the future.
The future of lawyering is that it will be different. Change does not only bring danger, change also brings opportunity.
My last word about the future is that having a sense of perspective will be good for mental health. Your careers will be a long ride of over 40 years. Not every stage of this ride will be equally wonderful, but everything will be alright in the end. If it is not alright, it is not yet the end.
Selamat datang to the new batch.
Author: KC Lye
First published in the Special Issue for Mass Call 2023 of the Singapore Law Gazette