It’s year-end. Forget about predictions for 2005. What will the legal profession look like in 20 years??? 

In Law Practice Today, an ABA online magazine, John Tredennick organizes a forum, Looking to the Future: What Changes Do You See Coming in the Next Twenty Years?, in which several commentators answer six questions he posed. The article is worth reading for the many points of view on each of the questions. Here are my answers:

1. What will be most different about the practice of law twenty years from now? Why?
Following the trend in health care, the legal market will adopt “evidence based law.” General counsels will finally put bite behind the bark for lower cost and better service. They or their agents will systematically analyze how lawyers work (for example, by analyzing the data generated by e-billing) and develop best practices. Key among these best practices will be formal project management, which will be a requirement for any sizable matter. The imperative to reduce costs and improve outcomes will drive this.

2. Will the billable hour still be king in twenty years? If not, what will replace it?
Yes, billable hours will prevail, but vitiated by disciplined project management combined with budgets for each stage of the matter.

3. What will law firms look like in twenty years? Mega firms, virtual organizations, or what?
Best practices and project management will enable well-managed law firms to recognize efficiencies, from investing in automation to hiring and effectively deploying professional project managers. Among large firms, only those with more than 1000 lawyers will have the scale to deliver the systematized services that clients will demand. Boutiques offering highly refined and niche services will also survive.

4. Will computers replace most of what lawyers do in twenty years? If so, how and what will be left for lawyers?
Computers will replace a portion of routine work that large law firms do today. The tools already exist, for example, expert systems or document assembly. The challenge is not in the technology, but in the economics. Only as both clients and firms develop discipline about best practices and budgeting will the economics of automating become positive.

5. Will the trend toward internationalization of law firms increase over the next twenty years? Will it engulf even the small firms?
Law firms will follow clients in this regard. Assuming business continues to globalize, so too will the firms that service them.

6. What technology change (existing or coming) will most affect law practices? Why?
The adoption of web services and the semantic web will create the ability for firms to deliver “law embedded in software.” This software will offer preventive law, detection of potential problems, and automation of routine legal tasks. Large firms will sell this on a subscription basis as part of institutional relationships; the profit, however, will still be in high-end, highly leveraged traditional matters.