Exploring the future of legal work

By William Isdale

‘Are junior lawyers an endangered species?’

Professor Julian Webb
Image above: Professor Julian Webb. Image credit: Yaoli Wang at Fotoholics.

That’s just one of the bold questions MLS Professor Julian Webb and his collaborators are asking about the future of the legal profession. With the rise of automated legal services, outsourcing, a growing reliance on paralegals and the emergence of online dispute resolution platforms, it is undergoing rapid change.

“These trends have major implications for the nature of legal work, and the future structure and organisation of the profession,” Professor Webb says.

He and his MLS colleagues have launched a new initiative, the Legal Professions Research Network, to find out more about these changes and trends in the legal services market. It is expected that the research will be of practical benefit to legal practitioners, regulators and law schools as they respond to shifts in the nature of legal practice.

One project the Network will undertake is gathering and analysing data about legal practice trends.

“We’re trying to get better data together on what’s actually happening in the legal services market,” Professor Webb says.

“At present, the public data we have is limited; where information is collected by individual firms, it is for their own purposes and treated as proprietary. This doesn’t help us to have sensible, evidence-based conversations about legal services policy.”

The project will involve collaborating with regulators and peak professional bodies over time to draw together enough data to track emerging trends.

The initiative will also shine a light on how existing regulation acts as an enabler, or barrier, to innovation. With digital start-ups like Uber and Airbnb disrupting many industries, it may not be long before, in some jurisdictions, digital competitors rival traditional law firms.

According to Professor Webb, such technologies could enhance access to justice, but also increase risks for unsophisticated consumers; they may facilitate legal work, but also create unforeseen challenges for ethics and regulation. This research will help identify the risks and challenges that lie ahead.

Professor Webb says the Network’s research will also inform the way law is taught in the future.

There is a direct translation across into the curriculum in having more sensible conversations about the skills and capacities needed by future lawyers. We do think there is a future for junior lawyers, but it may not look a great deal like the past.

The Network has already established collaborations with researchers at Flinders University and the Australian National University, and launched an international visitor program.

More information about the network is available here.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017.