One of the most thought provoking questions I think I was ever asked was “Do you fear the future?”. And it must have been running through the minds of the 530 or so delegates at the LawTech Futures conference in Victoria yesterday as we listened to two leading futurologists.

Charles Christian made a short introduction explaining that it was the biggest ever one day IT law event – with 45 presenters, three stages and 26 sessions and all the legal vendors under one roof. In his review of the past couple of decades, he talked of famous wrong calls, lost products, generational change before touching on BYOD (Buy Your Own Device), the death of the office and how client service will dominate the future law landscape. He made two searing points – the first that the majority of law firm IT spend had been on inward looking systems and that technology was there to enable strategy rather than be a substitute for it. Then came the futurologists.

Dr Patrick Dixon – 10 key trends

The Wall Street Journal named Patrick as a “global change guru” and the Press Association lists him as “Europe’s Leading Futurist” and he positively burst onto the stage with an impressive video backdrop. His first question was “If you had a blank sheet of paper, how would you design a law firm?” and then he moved straight to 10 key trends.

1.  Velocity “Speed matters” – IT innovation is increasing, there’s miniaturisation and mobilisation and there’s movement on brain-chip fusion. Recounting experiments where mice were able to communicate with distant mice via “biodigital” brains, the possibility of human telepathy was raised. He then took an interesting side route talking about how “emotion drives history” – before returning to speed and mentioning that 80% of potential on-line purchases are lost in the first 10-20 seconds. He noted that businesses make decisions at a frighteningly fast pace – and lawyers are too slow. He raised a nervous chortle from the audience as he talked of the “social crime” of telephone answering systems who urge you to “press 1 for…”. His plea was to be passionate about time.

2.  Multi-channel clients – He showed videos of youngsters who found time during an escalator ride to open their iPads and other devices to watch a film or catch the news and showed how information is now presented on every platform. A show of hands revealed that just about everyone used YouTube and 10% had created and uploaded videos – but mostly for personal rather than business reasons. He pointed to the disparity between the advanced technology we use in our personal lives and the lagged effect in the office. And with social media in the mix, he urged us to rethink service.

3.  Deregulation – With over 100 applications for ABS, one in three of the top 40 firms looking at non legal mergers in the next two years, two firms stating their intention for a public listing to raise £50m and six firms looking at non merger routes to raise £20m things were likely to change significantly with opportunities for small and large law businesses alike.

4.  Mergers and globalisation – He said that 75% of law firms were in early discussions and that US law firm mergers were up 80% in 2011.

5.  Virtual firms and smaller offices – Clients no longer want to go to their lawyers – they expect them to have global people who are accessible through the cloud.

6.  Outsourcing – After a jaunt through world population figures (16bn children), and pointing out the need for four couples to create one great-child he said “we have to make babies or import them”. He looked at the burgeoning Indian middle classes and the 25,000 IT graduates produced by one organisation alone in India compared to the total UK annual output of 8,500. He pointed to the 22,000 Indian law graduates at 20% of Western labour costs. (I have to add here that the later conference announcements by TaTa consultancy would confirm the view that outsourcing would be transformed).

7.  Commoditisation – We looked at Cybersettle offers for $49, divorce claims at £29.99 and online questions from JustAnswer. He predicted that personal star ratings would come to be the norm for lawyers and that a firm’s value would become an accumulation of its people’s scores.

8.  Search – The need for more structured data and better interpretation was highlighted. Google Law provides new community knowledge – wrestling control from the profession. He talked about how the search engines needed more to overcome the problems of spam and SEO so amplifiers with authority, video viewing time and the collective view would come to dominate.

9.  More laws – He predicted more environmental law and an increase in climate litigation filings.

10.  Beyond compliance – He said “compliance is dead – except as a defensive strategy” and that more and more would seek advice on behaviour that was OK now but may retrospectively cause problems.

I’m not sure whether it was the energetic, almost frenetically passionate delivery or the onslaught of so many mind-boggling ideas that left me quite exhausted after this 40 minute tour de force.

Gerd Leonhard – The future is trust

The Wall Street Journal calls Gerd “one of the leading Media Futurists in the World” and his laid back, relaxed Swiss style while he battled with the technology at the start of his presentation was a pleasant gear change.

“The purpose of looking at the future is to disturb the present” (Gaston Berger) was his opening gambit with photos of toddlers using iPads and the comment “these are your future clients” – the AO (“Always On”) Generation. We laughed at more photos where small children walked away from print magazines thinking them broken as nothing happened when they touched the images. His ideas then flowed out fast and fascinated us all.

1.  Empowerment – More iPads than PCs have been sold and tablets can be made cheap and solar powered. The hierarchy of needs must be revisited as young people throughout the world will find money for mobile phones and tablets instead of other consumer goods. The world has shifted from service empires to networks and we are the content. Social media has made broadcasters of us all and the global village is in chaos.

2.  Networked society – We have moved from being in a broadcast environment to being part of the chain of communication. The model is no longer one to many but now many to many. Youtube effectively wiped out MTV in 24 months and is making $36 bn pcm revenues. Convergence means there will be “networked law firms” and the leaders will become connectors rather directors. We will move from hyper-capitalism to hyper-collaboration.

3.  Newscape – Despite all the free information, people still pay to use their preferred print medium. This may be because they trust the source, value the filtering or prefer “packaged news”. It suggests that information providers need to find new ways to add value all the time. Spotify is not about legal access to music – it is about seeing the music preferences of all of your friends. There will be a “tyranny of transparency”.

4.  Control, access and authority – We were urged to consider a number of recent developments – copyright in music, unbundling, NetFlix, ZipCar and peer-to-peer collaboration. There was a nice image of lots of yellow Lego brick model heads all with different faces. He advised of the “loss of default expert” status and said that “sharing is the new owning”. He mentioned the famous McKinsey report which warned those industries that are still trading on information asymmetries (real estate/property industry watch out especially!).

5.  Freemiums – There was a move towards things that “feel like free” – with LinkedIn and Skype and various online games providing free access to allow users to become familiar with and then reliant upon systems before payment was required. The key is to capture large volumes before charging as the value paradigm is changing. Do things for free and get a 50% conversion rate to the next (paying) level.

6.  Nowness – There are new roles in the digital ecosystem – and real time has taken over with virtual services and “hangouts” increasing. He showed a video of a FedEx delivery man throwing a package – to illustrate that everything is observed and recorded. I liked his idea of organisations having “Chief Mavericks”. He said that the law model – where lawyers produce content – will be challenged as it was based on scarcity and we are now in a digital society where information is ubiquitous.

7.  New business models – He then offered some observations on “rethinking the legal business model”, asked us “how visual are you?” and pointed to:

    • Influence and reputation
    • New ways to get paid (e.g. Facebook credits, currency for “likes”)
    • Immediacy
    • Personalisation
    • Attention
    • Interpretation

He talked about the changes endemic in moving from a world of “people of the book” to one of “people of the screen” and noted that you cannot outsource creativity, trust and human relationships. And, in what must have been like balm to the lawyers in the room, he said that “trust is the new currency”. He explained that MIT had put its entire course library on line and available to all – yet still received a 38% increase in requests to attend – people don’t want the knowledge, but the experience.

8.  From the age of software to the age of data – Following the mantra of digital PR he asked us how we were monitoring our on-line reputations and said we must move to “data curation” and quoted Umair Haque (HBR) on the need to shift “from value chain to value circles”. He said we are all content businesses, brands who publish and that interaction comes before transaction. Return on Investment is being replaced with Return on Involvement, and commoditisation with collaboration.

To summarise, he mentioned Social, Local, Mobile, Video – and all at speed. That “like economics” will dominate (we need to find new reasons why people come to us), trust the new currency, data the new oil, to consider return on involvement, to seek interaction before transaction and to accept the loss of control.

I am sure that I have not done justice to this startling presentation nor its presenter. And while it may seem like a stream of sound bytes, he did provide examples and elaboration (usually with some form of video illustration) of all the points. I have already downloaded his Futurist App.

Originally, I had decided that – on reflection – I did not fear the future. And after these talks I decided that I was actually quite excited about the possibilities ahead. Yet I suspect there will be those in the audience who were thinking of that Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”.