This article was written by James Boocock, general manager of Legal Solutions and future market trend specialist at Thomson Reuters in Australia. The article was originally published in the June edition of the Law Society Journal of New South Wales.

For the legal practitioner, anticipating changes in the legal industry is crucial if you are to stay competitive in the market. For small and medium firms, lacking the budgets and resources of larger practices, this is even more important – get it wrong and you could end up wasting valuable time and money.

However, this can be a difficult task. The reality of running a firm is that it’s all too easy to get consumed in short-term planning issues, such as client work or budgeting, at the expense of “big picture” strategy. Thomson Reuters recently commissioned research into the key trends and issues on the radars of senior practitioners at law firms across Australia to help us better understand where the market is heading in 20, 30 and/or 40 years’ time. Three major themes emerged:

The evolving legal library
The majority of those questioned (44 percent) predicted their firm’s print legal library would “virtually disappear” by 2044, with 10 percent claiming it would halve in size. However, rather than this being down to practitioners moving away from legal texts per se, it’s more about a shift in the way they consume information, driven by tablets and smartphones. This should be viewed as the broader evolution of legal libraries, with electronic information sources existing alongside traditional legal texts. Increasingly, practitioners will require an effective understanding of the right context to use electronic resources rather than relying exclusively on print and manual methods.

Coming-of-age of the virtualised firm
While working remotely is already popular, in 30 years’ time this trend is set to dramatically grow, with 24 percent of practitioners predicting three quarters of their staff would operate permanently outside of the office. There are a number of factors driving this trend: the rise of digital natives, comfortable with working on the move; the cost savings and efficiency associated with fewer office-based staff; and the coming-of-age of eBooks and eReaders, presenting a credible mobile alternative to traditional legal texts.

Consumers in control
The research identified a rise in consumers seeking to manage their own legal affairs as a result of ubiquitous online tools and information (44 percent). Consequently, many firms will look to further specialise (27 percent) or become highly specialised (26 percent) in the next 30 years in order to stay competitive. The alternative is for firms to invest in tools that make practitioner’s daily tasks more efficient, allowing them to focus their time on higher margin work. These include document assembly tools, practice management software and preconfigured workflow, which will make for higher chances of survival in an increasingly competitive market. To some, these trends may seem scary, but in many ways we are already halfway there. Often, future-proofing your firm can be as simple as adopting a new practice management system or workflow solution. The world will always need lawyers, just make sure you’re a lawyer with one eye on the future.