More than half of legal services workers in the UK will lose their jobs and those that remain will be forced to take “performance-enhancing medication”, a “disruptive” vision of the profession in 2050 published by the Law Society has envisaged.
The “savage reduction” in the workforce would hit high street firms particularly hard, as conveyancing and private client services would be among those “delivered by large retail legal service providers”.
Meanwhile, in corporate law firms, “large swathes of routine legal advice” would either be conducted in-house by clients using technology or outsourced to technology-enabled providers.
“Only the high value, complex or newest areas of law will need human input. Humans may also be needed in relationship management with larger clients.”
In the first major piece of output from its Future Worlds 2050 project, aimed at stimulating discussion about how the profession will change in the coming years, Law Society researchers outlined both a “disruptive scenario” for 2050 and a “conservative route”.
In the disruptive version, more than half of legal services would be lost between 2020 and 2050.
“Lawyers remaining within the profession must work alongside technology – and are required to take performance-enhancing medication in order to optimise their own productivity and effectiveness.”
On a more positive note, researchers predicted that technology would be “leveraged in creative and social advantageous ways to democratise access to justice in the legal sphere, tackle environmental degradation and revolutionise health outcomes”.
Researchers used views from a ‘Delphi panel’ and interviewees involved in the Future Worlds project and combined them with research carried out for the society last year by KPMG to model two “possible avenues” towards 2050.
Under the “conservative route”, the decline in the legal workforce was much more modest, falling by just under 20% by 2050.
Unfortunately, there was bad news for the high street and for small firms even in this forecast.
High street firms were “most at risk of disappearing” and smaller firms were destined to “fall out of the market”, against a background of “more consolidation and a rise in large corporations” that could fund and scale technology.
Meanwhile the “high-end of the legal profession” would be “generally immune to a radical reduction” in staff.
Looking at how the world would change in the next decade, researchers said China was on course to be the world’s biggest economy by 2026, and artificial intelligence (AI) would contribute $15.7tn to world trade by 2030.
The vast majority of “job concepts” in 2030 “do not yet exist”, and half of workers think that the roles and skills of the next 10-15 years are “impossible to predict within their industry”.
In the near term, the report said emerging technologies and their potential legal applications should be a priority across the profession.
“The cost pressures on the legal sector to adopt AI and streamline legal functions will lead to more work types being commoditised, automated and self-service in the near term.”
Law firms and legal departments would also need to create multi-disciplinary teams, “bringing in tech and data experts, also finding global partners whose focus is identifying internal and external opportunities in the green space. These opportunities are advisory as well as legal”.
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce commented: “The legal profession is at a pivotal moment, as is the world in which we live. There are a plethora of forces shifting our collective experience and the business environment. If we’ve learnt anything from 2020, it’s that the future can still catch you unawares.”
She highlighted the themes of AI, hybrid working, green energy and climate change.
“New forms of green energy and climate change action could create opportunities for lawyers and their insurer clients, as they seek to find innovative solutions to the risks posed by extreme weather events.
“Legal input and advice will also be needed around ‘green funding’ – investors financing environmentally friendly companies – and there is likely to be a rise of climate litigation against corporations or governments.”
The Law Society said its work on the report was carried out alongside legal research specialists Acritas, and further reports would follow, after one on the impact of climate change on the profession  was published in February.