rblog

Horizons of possibility

By Chris Dehame-Hare on 5 January 2015

What’s the future going to look like? There can't be too many organisations that wouldn't benefit from asking themselves that question. As a regulator, we look at current trends to see how they’re likely to run over the next year or so, and are able to allocate our resources accordingly.

But there are benefits to looking even further into the future. For example, by planning out certain scenarios, we gain insights into what the legal services market might look like in ten or twenty years time under different assumptions. 

It isn’t about trying to predict the future. It’s about identifying reasonable possibilities and spotting what changes you can realistically expect. By identifying the potential for harm or good in the market we give ourselves the best opportunity to have an influence. It isn’t a wildly novel process, and it doesn’t involve crystal balls. 

Signs of change 

“The future is already here, it just isn’t very well distributed yet” - William Gibson 

What it does involve is looking at the things that are happening in the legal market and the wider world right now and trying to decide which of them will be defining features of the market to come. 

As author William Gibson suggests in his quote, some of today's niche concepts will be the everyday norms of the future, but it’ll take time. It’s not hard to see why. To take an example, the average car on UK roads is seven-and-a-half-years old. That means that even after any innovation - autonomous self-driving capability, for instance – becomes a standard item on all new cars, it’ll take most of the next decade before it’s the norm. That’s why broadcasters cannot yet assume that every car has a digital radio. 

If your forecast requires something to be literally everywhere, then you’ll be waiting a long time. Unless you’re looking at the very distant future, anything commonplace in your scenario is likely to already be around now in some form. 

Some things cannot vary. The children who will be starting secondary school in 2025 have already been born: they are also the people who will be claiming pensions in 70 or so years’ time. There’s little point in scenarios that don’t take their numbers as largely read. 

Horizons 

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” - Bill Gates

In a time of change in the legal market as massive and fundamental as that we are presently seeing, you might ask why anyone would want to look further than a handful of years ahead, if that. Surely there’ll be sufficient change in the next five years to keep us all occupied? 

The reason for looking further ahead is that you don’t expect to see that much real change over a relatively short time, even during great disruption. There’s also the problem that, in the short term, the noise crowds out the signal. Things that seem like huge transformations prove to be flashes in the pan, things that seem slight differences prove to be massive and permanent disruptions, and failed ideas turn out to have simply been introduced too soon. Take Kozmo.com's failed attempt at delivering goods on the day of purchase in 1998 - today this service is commonplace amongst the likes of Amazon and Google. 

It can take a long time to see which is which. Chinese premiere Zhou Enlai was exaggerating when he stated in 1971 that it was too early to tell the long term effects of the French Revolution, but issues like the true impact of ABS are likely to take the best part of a decade to reveal themselves. How much change should we expect then? Well, just think back fifteen years to 2000. Here’s some words and phrases nobody had heard yet:

  • smartphone 
  • Alternative Business Structure
  • Blackberry
  • Legal Services Act
  • Facebook 
  • Skype 
  • credit crunch
  • cloud computing
  • selfie 

In 2000, only 361m people used the internet and, thinking back, it was pretty sluggish, expensive and susceptible to crashes. Now, 3.1bn people use the internet and we have entire businesses on the cloud. In the legal market, the internet is no longer an extension of the Yellow Pages; we see “digital by default” services, online dispute resolution and personalised case trackers. The legal market of 2000 didn’t even contain LLPs, let alone listed law firms. 

Looking forward fifteen years, we can expect to see a world that’s as changed from 2015 as today is from 2000. 

Your future 

What does all this mean for legal services? Well, as we said, the seeds of the future have already been planted. So you might do well to take a look around. If you can see a scenario developing that you can profit from, or a problem you need to avoid, then you need to take timely action.

What “timely” means will depend on your business and how swiftly you can make and implement strategic choices. Paradoxically, those working within areas of the market that tend to change quickly probably need to look further ahead than those in markets that develop very slowly. 

So, what small thing now will be the lifeblood of your business in 2030? We’d all like to be able to know that for certain – oh, for that crystal ball! But thinking about the possibilities can help you prepare to meet the challenges of change to come - whatever form it takes.

Chris Dehame-Hare is a Risk Analyst at the Solicitors Regulation Authority.