More than 30 years ago, I served as legislative aide to a representative in the Wisconsin State Assembly. One day we were touring a factory in his district. As we walked past the largest forklift I have ever seen, the driver looked down upon us and announced, “Get government off my back!” The legislator slowly turned around, looked up, and calmly stated, “That’s fine. If that’s what you want, give me your safety helmet, your steel-toed boots, we’ll take the guards off your forklift….” Before he finished, the driver asked, “Why would you do that?” “Because that’s government,” came the answer.
I was reminded of that story recently as I listened to a speaker at the American Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute, which for 40 years has trained new presidents-elect of state, local, and specialty bar associations. A full-time association CEO, the speaker discussed the impact of the dramatic changes that are taking place in the world and how they might affect bar associations and the practice of law.
Of course, he mentioned the likes of AVVO, LegalZoom, and the other disrupters affecting the traditional delivery of legal services. But then he talked about the self-driving car and took the audience to a different way of thinking about the future of law practice.
The self-driving car, which, the speaker predicted, will dominate personal transportation in 20 years or less, has some features that may change large areas of legal practice. Self-driving cars will have fewer to no accidents. With fewer to no accidents, there will be almost no traffic accident cases (although I still can’t figure out how self-driving vehicles will avoid that late-night deer in rut running into your car). There will be far fewer speeding tickets to prosecute and to defend. And the number of drunk-driving tickets probably will be reduced, unless the meaning of operating a vehicle is changed. Auto repair companies may go out of business, which means fewer business clients. On the other hand, if there is an accident, it may require an entirely different approach involving the systems that guide the cars.
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That’s just one example, but it illustrates that lawyers must look more broadly at change to predict where there will be changes in the practice. Population shift is one of those areas. With 77 million baby boomers retiring and far fewer members of Gen X coming into their years of their greatest earning potential, how will trusts and estates practices be affected? How about business sales? With the 83 million millennials entering the workforce in greater and greater numbers, what will this mean for small-business development?
Technology may have different effects than already considered. Will younger lawyers’ increasing reliance on Google Scholar for their legal research result in more or fewer malpractice claims? And reflecting on the forklift driver above, will today’s political push for fewer regulations mean increases or decreases in worker’s compensation claims down the road or an increase or decrease in workplace lawsuits? And will the projected rise of industrial robots nearly eliminate both?
We can speculate on the answers, but that is the beauty of unintended consequences. The results almost always are a surprise.