We can’t predict the exact nature of threats to legal services. So future plans should be of only the broadest variety.

Here is my initial response to the Law Society 2020 discussion which its new chief executive launched in the Gazette last week. Curiously, it is now compulsory for all self-respecting bars to have a structured discussion about the future, and the Law Society is therefore following a well-trodden path.

The gravity of future challenges pressing on us becomes clear when we realise that the American Bar Association, the Canadian Bar Association, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, and now the Law Society, are all currently conducting debates about how the future will change lawyers’ lives.

Of course, writers on the legal profession are queueing up in response to this zeitgeist to present various futures. Just over the last few days, I have come across such different takes that it is difficult to believe that they are speaking about the same sector. So this is my theme for this week: which snake-oil salesman to believe? Take these two cases, for instance.

The Economist had an article recently on how the unseen threat to the legal profession’s current structure comes from the Big Four accountants. Although the article acknowledges that the Big Four withdrew from the law after the Arthur Andersen debacle, The Economist says that they are creeping back.  

It reports that the Big Four have so far focused on mid-tier, process-oriented work rather than the huge deals and lawsuits of the Magic Circle firms. But as the Big Four run out of room to grow in their current niche, they will inevitably eye the business opportunities above them. (However, this analysis of the power of the Big Four overlooks the ban on their providing non-audit services - including legal services - to numerous big companies whom they already audit, which is rather a clog on their future growth in this area.)

The opposite view is taken by Mark Lassiter, a lawyer from Arizona, who is a speaker on future trends. He does not see law firms having a viable future. His view is that ‘future lawyers will collaborate and work together on legal matters in cloud-based, temporary “teams” – not based on law firm allegiances or employment, but rather on their own, specific expertise and skill sets.

‘In other words, the “mission” (not the “law firm”) will drive and determine the lawyers and staff recruited to a temporary legal team - allowing clients to “cherry pick” the best, most qualified lawyers and legal staff for the clients’ unique legal matters - with all legal work tasks being monitored and controlled from secure, cloud-based portals.’

Goodbye then to law firms.

Who is right? (And of course they may both be right, but just on different timescales, so that the Big Four will enter the market, and then the ‘mission’ thesis will wipe out their legal-business arms.)

In the meanwhile, the ABA Journal had an entertaining article recently on 20 apps that provide easier access to justice, sometimes with and sometimes without the services of an intervening lawyer.

There is the Oh Crap App, for instance, which helps drivers during an overly aggressive drink-driving stop by the police.

‘Punch a button on the app when you’ve been pulled over and it automatically spills advice, such as “The less you say the better” and “Lawyer up.” It also triggers an auto-audio-record feature and sends the file to a secure server in the cloud. There’s a “contact an attorney” function that phones the nearest on-call attorney registered with the app.’

Next there’s the Stop and Frisk Watch: ‘It allows a neighbourhood bystander to record a questionable stop-and-frisk with just a flick of the finger. One quick shake of the phone, and the recording stops. A survey pops up after the recording is done, which can be used to text additional details about the stop. The entire report is designed to be easily forwarded to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Stop and Frisk Watch can also be used to auto-alert everyone in a community who is monitoring police stops. And there’s a “Know your rights” section for people unsure about what police can and cannot do during a stop-and-frisk.’

This article seems to suggest that the future is mobile – and that only those sufficiently agile with developing technology will survive, whether they are lawyers or not, particularly now that so many people are more comfortable consulting their phones than any other source of help.

The future has always eluded us. We regularly make fools of ourselves by predicting it in too much detail. Planning should be only of the broadest variety. And I have recently promoted my own variety of snake oil: regulate the unregulated, and surf the technological wave.

Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs