To understand predictions, you must understand the methodology that led to them. First, I believe that predictions should have a sound statistical backing. I enjoy reading the fivethirtyeight.com site (Nate Silver’s data journalism site for ESPN), where the journalists do some significant data analyses to support their stories. Rest assured, I have based my predictions on deep data mining and analysis.
Second, I recently read Philip Tetlock’s book, Superforecasting and watched on Edge.org the discussion among Tetlock and some other luminaries, including Daniel Kahneman, Robert Axelrod, Dean Kamen, and Margaret Levi. I know that making predictions isn’t easy. I also know that most futurists make their predictions soft and squishy so almost any outcome proves them correct. I don’t want to be in that camp. As you will see, my predictions include very precise outcomes so you will know whether I was right or wrong.
Third, predictions do not help unless we can use them to alter behavior. Knowing with certainty that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake will happen on January 15, 2016, won’t help much unless I know where it will happen. I have limited my predictions to instances where I know they will really help.
Finally, blogging is a competitive endeavor. If I make wrong predictions or they do not help, you will stop reading this blog and go elsewhere. I don’t want that to happen, so my predictions show that I am keenly aware of the competition.
With that introduction, I give you my nine predictions and my “why this prediction adds value” statement for each one. Everything I list below must happen (or not happen) in 2016 to score the prediction “correct”:
1. Two U.S. law firms, each with at least 100 lawyers, will merge.
For purposes of all these predictions, a U.S. law firm is defined as a firm with more than 50% of its partners listing the U.S. as the principal practice location. There was a time in a galaxy far, far away when this prediction would have been truly earth shattering. Today, this prediction falls in the same category as “the sun will rise tomorrow.”
Value: See number 4. These firms should focus on merger planning rather than on planning to change their legal and management structures.
2. The U.S. legal industry, an approximately $275 billion per year industry, will not drop below $200 billion per year.
The demise of the U.S. legal industry has been reported in many publications. The only outstanding question seems to be when it will happen. This prediction helps clarify that 2016 will not be the year the legal industry disappears. Oh, by the way, new surveys tell us the tide is turning and the legal industry will experience ups and downs, but not crash and burn. When no one wants change, maybe you can lock in stability.
Value: In an industry obsessed with income, it helps to know you will still have one.
3. No U.S. law firm with more than 1,000 attorneys will announce that it has stopped hiring associates and will bring an artificial intelligence system online to do the work of associates.
We hear each day about new advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics. We also hear about how millennials don’t want to work 16 hours a day, six or even seven days a week (odd, but apparently true).
Clearly, law firm partners and general counsel need a machine that can work around the clock and turn out documents equivalent to what the average law school graduate can generate. But, having reviewed the AI offerings of many legal technology startups, I decided to take a leap of faith and say 2016 is not the year that AI will merge with robotics to produce the new law firm associate.
Value: Students who will graduate in 2016 can still target law firms and corporate law departments for jobs. Your robotics repair minor won’t become important until at least 2017.
4. The American Bar Association Board of Governors will not vote unanimously to support a federal law modeled after the United Kingdom’s Legal Services Act 2007.
Each year in the U.S., more people question why a country with 1.2 million lawyers and many unemployed law school graduates can’t rank higher than 66th on the World Justice Project’s access to civil justice scale. It seems only logical that at some point someone will ask whether using lawyers more efficiently is better than multi-year studies and large programs that confirm we have not made progress.
Still, the ABA and state bars (with a few notable exceptions) have shown reluctance to change their thinking. Indeed, one state bar leader questioned the logic of allowing people to get affordable legal services if it meant a starting lawyer’s income level would drop below $75,000 a year (what he described as “scraping by”). Despite the pressure, I see the ABA holding firm on the idea that the time for reforming a 100-year old regulatory system and the institutions defending it has not come.
Value: All those law firms planning to change their business models to corporate structures can hold off on planning the change for 2016.
5. The top 20 largest law firms in the U.S., by revenue, will not start a mad rush to reduce hourly billing rates, following on the heels of one firm in the pack reducing its hourly rates 50%.
General counsel have complained about high billing rates for decades. Yet, recent surveys show that cost is not as important to general counsel as we thought. They say they value quality many things over cost. Put aside for the moment that we don’t have measures of quality, general counsel value it the most. Lawyers at the top 20 firms read the same surveys, so I’m going to plant a stake on this one and say they will take the risk and not reduce their rates.
Value. Law firms and law departments plan using short time horizons. We often hear the word “predictability” bandied about. Rest easy, lawyers, this year won’t bring any sudden swings in revenues or expenses.
6. No “elite” U.S. law school (meaning a school ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News & World Report), will announce that all students must now pass a leadership course as part of the degree requirements.
When it comes to the legal industry, it is easy to find many topics that you can discuss in an article that starts, “only in the legal industry …” One topic on that list surely must be that law school graduates have no (or at best minimal) training in leadership. As Deborah L. Rhode says in her book, Lawyers as Leaders:
It is ironic that the occupation most responsible for producing America’s leaders has focused so little attention on that role. The legal profession has supplied a majority of American presidents, and in recent decades, almost half the members of Congress. Many of our nation’s most revered and most reviled public figures have been attorneys: Abraham Lincoln and Thurgood Marshall; Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Although they account for just 0.4 percent of the population, lawyers are well-represented at all levels of leadership, as governors, state legislators, judges, prosecutors, general counsel, law firm managing partners, and heads of corporate, government, and non-profit organizations. Even when they do not occupy top positions in their workplaces, lawyers lead teams, committees, task forces, and charitable initiatives. Yet rarely have these lawyers received training for leadership responsibilities. Although leadership development is now a forty-five billion dollar industry, and an Amazon search reveals close to 88,000 leadership books in print, the topic is largely missing in legal education.
Think of the hue and cry if medical students graduated without any concept of how to practice medicine.
Value. Knowing what your future workforce can do helps everyone plan strategically. If your incoming workforce is well-trained in theory, but has no leadership skills, you shouldn’t build a strategic plan that expects otherwise.
7. The Above the Law blog will run a story about something scandalous, possibly illegal, done by a lawyer.
This prediction has two parts. First, I am predicting a lawyer will do something scandalous and possibly illegal. Second, I am predicting Above the Law will run a story about it. The double-prediction really affected my statistical calculations. Despite serious misgivings, the Monte Carlo analysis gave me comfort that this is a sound prediction, so I’m going with it.
Value. Our days would be dull without news about how lawyers are mere mortals. While scary, the news that lawyers have faults like other people is something we need to constantly hear.
8. Before the end of 2016, another series of articles, blog posts, and interviews will come out with predictions about 2017.
It is part of human nature. We want to see into the future. For lawyers, seeing the future gives us comfort. If tomorrow will be the same as today, then we can skip change. In fact, we can get the most comfort from knowing those firms changing the least get paid the most.
Value. By now, I’m sure you can sense my overall prediction is that, in the legal industry, 2016 will look a lot like 2015. Probably no other industry can make that claim, and certainly no other industry boasting a $275 billion size in the U.S. Alone can make it.
The Ninth Prediction is the Scariest
If the latest book (The Future of the Professions)by Richard Susskind, joined by his son Daniel Susskind, is correct, lawyers (doctors, theologians, and about every other professional) live on borrowed time. Technology will overtake us (sooner than later), and while it may not eliminate our professions it will dramatically shrink the number of professionals and re-write what we do. However, 2016 won’t be the year of the professional-apocalypse.
For many, that news will elicit a sigh of relief. For me, it comes with a sigh of disappointment. I am impatient. I think when we have the opportunity to do better, we should grab it. When we have the opportunity to make life better for hundreds of millions, we should make it happen.
About eight years ago, Joseph Bower and other professors at Harvard Business School gathered groups of business leaders around the world. The challenge was to “generate a dialogue with some of the best leaders in the world about the challenges they believed lay ahead for business, and for capitalism in particular: what problems … would we face in the 21st century for which [Harvard Business School] should prepare its students?”
In the online edition of the Harvard Business Review, Bower published a recent paper titled, “Another Year Has Passed, but the List of Massive Global Problems Has Stayed the Same.” In it, he covers the ten forces identified by the business leaders that threaten capitalism’s progress. The list includes environmental degradation, the state of trade, and instability of the financial system. All things you might expect. But, it also includes failure of the rule of law.
For those in the legal profession at the forefront of ensuring societies operate under the rule of law, this rebuke from clients should have been a warning. It isn’t often that clients say your profession is failing to deliver on its principal mission and in so doing threatens progress for the world’s leading economic engine.
What came next should have underscored the severity of the warning. The leaders concluded that: “The institutions we have were built after the second world war. Today companies are international but we still have nations. The institutions lack the capacity to help.”
The predictions I list above are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and hopefully you take them that way. But my next prediction is not so light.
Lawyers have become obsessed with the mundane and with finding ways to preserve an elite and wealthy profession. Meanwhile, the institutions and structures designed to ensure the success of our political, economic, and societal systems – those systems which are essential for the success of our clients – are struggling. As members of one of the three “liberal professions,” lawyers at one time had an essential role in building the institutions which our clients now point to as lacking the capacity to help.
If lawyers do not focus on responding to client concerns, resuscitating the rule of law, and restoring to our institutions the capacity to help, we face consequences far more severe than a decline in income. I predict we will not want to face that future.