Blogs, conferences and news articles terrify us daily with the latest developments on the future of the legal profession: chatbots, cybersecurity risks to confidentiality, gigantic electronic platforms owned by non-lawyers, and the invasion of artificial intelligence and blockchain. It is a 1950s sci-fi movie come to life. 

The Latin tags and list of precedents learned in law school are useless against the advancing monsters. We throw out strategies in panic: fight them, join them, regulate them. Attempts at regulation fall off their scaly backs.

There is no end of advice. Reports on the profession’s future proliferate. Many say the same things. But before arriving at solutions, we need to be aware of the difficulties. I will try to summarise them.

The first is that we are ill-equipped for any of the options open to us (other than burying our heads in the sand in despair). We do not have the knowledge, money or organisational structure for a comprehensive response. Our training has led us to be risk-averse, and to work through incremental, and not revolutionary, change. We work in silos of particular cases and areas, centred around the facts of individual circumstances, and rarely engage in our working lives with horizontal, upending notions.

The second problem is that we have not yet seen much change. Our lives are led in more or less the same way as before. Yes, we have smart-phones (do not use public Wi-Fi in communicating with clients); we send and answer non-stop emails (remember to encrypt particularly sensitive information); we might have been locked out of our systems by ransomware (do not click on suspect links); and we might have even dealt unknowingly with chatbots when querying a large utility supplier (when it seemed like a real person). But our businesses continue in a recognisable way, while the newcomers stealthily take up their virtual positions.

The third difficulty is that those scary newcomers have mostly begun by tackling the very issue that our business model has failed – unmet legal need – and so they have sometimes been welcomed as saviours. The fact they are in a realm of the market where lawyers are thin on the ground might be one of the reasons we do not yet feel their impact. You may have read about the chatbot which won 160,000 out of 250,000 cases challenging parking tickets in the UK and the US – and how its inventor Joshua Browder is now moving into immigration, divorce, bankruptcy and simple responses in consumer law, housing and employment. Or about the electronic platform which offers legal assistance at fees which no bricks-and-mortar lawyer can afford. Once the monsters have munched their way through unmet legal need, and developed their systems to a level of sophistication and perfection, where do you think they will turn next?

Our businesses continue in a recognisable way while the newcomers stealthily take up their virtual positions

Many pooh-pooh this scenario as alarmist. There are always such people and because the future is impossible to predict, it is equally impossible to know whether they are right. They say that the professional and human values which a lawyer brings to a case cannot be replicated by a machine, that legal services must always be regulated to protect the public, so there will always be a need for us. They say large corporations will always want lawyers and that it is impossible to imagine machines taking over serious criminal defence work. Even if they are right (and their vision is of a much more narrowly focused profession), we still need to think about a plan B.

So we come to solutions. The latest report on the future, from the Ohio State Bar in the US, came to some interesting conclusions. For instance, it proposed that a student loan/debt forgiveness programme should be established for new lawyers willing to work in under-served (in their case non-urban) areas. It also suggested a comprehensive online legal portal for Ohio should be supported, with plenty of assistance for clients trying to find their way through the legal jungle. We could think about adopting those two in our own jurisdiction (imagine a Law Society-supported legal portal, offering legal assistance to clients through member resources).

But none of the solutions yet proposed by a bar or similar professional organisation goes far enough, because the ramifications are too huge to manage. We need a solution for training lawyers in technology and innovation; for raising capital, including maybe by the bar itself, which is likely to be the only player capable and trusted to institute the changes necessary; and for reimagining the role of a lawyer in this new landscape.

No one has yet matched solutions to the size of the challenge. And so the aliens advance.

Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Law Society Council