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Lawyers? We're Staying
by Doug McQuiston
The following was printed in the Rocky Mountain News in December 1999.
I know what you’re thinking. "Can’t we finally do away with lawyers in the next thousand years?" Well, snap out of it, friend.
Lawyers, like sharks, will never become extinct. We will adapt. Just as sure as we’ll still have lawyer jokes, you’ll still have lawyers in the next thousand years. You’ll complain about us, too, until you need one.
So what does the future hold? Let’s just take a look at the next hundred years. We will continue to see our "rights" expand on several fronts. Some, like the right to "digital privacy," or security of our on-line personae, will be important. Others say the "right" to be free from insult while cross-dressing on the job will be (how do I put this?)—less so. In the years to come, we will see victimhood explode to previously unheard of levels. Soon, we’ll all be members of at least one class action, whether we know it (or want it) or not. Your check, probably for about $12.50, will be in the mail. "Your" lawyers will make millions.
It’s already here. Think "Big Tobacco." Thanks largely to developments in the Internet and computer database management, a new consortium of plaintiff’s injury lawyers gained the power to instantly share millions of pages of documents, pool their resources, and bring this "bulletproof" industry giant to its knees. Expect that trend to continue, in a big way. Now that the strategy has proven successful, who knows where it will take us?
It is already being tooled up against gun manufacturers. Fast-food conglomerates and potato chip manufacturers are probably already looking over their shoulders. Liquor distillers and breweries will be worked over, too. You already know how it will work—you’ve seen the show. By any measure, the billions spent by states and individuals combating the effects of heart disease, obesity and alcohol abuse by the year 2050 will dwarf the money spent fighting lung cancer. Surely there will be a new horde of class-action lawyers out there, adding up the billions in damages and calculating the contingency fee.
What will happen to the "garden variety" civil lawsuit? Expect the law to catch up with the Web here, too. This year, Colorado courts will begin accepting electronic filings over a secure Internet site. Within 50 years, paper court files will be as archaic as the old sheepskin-bound title records found on dusty shelves at the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Historians will still pore through them, but lawyers and judges will do all of their work "on-line."
Big law firms will either split apart from the weight of their overhead, or merge into huge "multi-disciplinary practices." These giant conglomerates will be filled with lawyers, accountants, financial planners, even architects and engineers, all practicing together.
Small firms will paradoxically be able to out-maneuver these behemoths, though, to capture all but the largest pieces of business. On-line filing, litigation by Webcast, instant access to pooled data, documents, and legal research over the Web, will allow even a sole practitioner to work out of his streamside house in Gunnison and compete with the big boys and girls on 17th Street.
Trials will become, even more than they are now, the exception rather than the rule. Already, nearly 90 percent of all civil cases in Colorado are settled or dropped before trial. In the next hundred years, expect this trend to approach 100 percent. Trials are already too costly, and their results too unpredictable. While litigants will still use lawyers, fewer of them will use the courts. Existing forms of "alternative dispute resolution," or ADR, such as mediation, arbitration, and "mini-trials" will evolve into new, even more efficient and inexpensive methods. Instead of getting the case after a year or so in court, and tens of thousands of dollars wasted, these ADR entrepreneurs will grab the case from the beginning, becoming court substitutes.
Even how we settle cases will change. Huge databases of civil cases and their outcomes will be available to litigants and their lawyers. They will just plug their case facts into "cybersettlement" Web sites. In seconds, they will see a predicted dollar settlement range for their case based on a detailed analysis of every other similar case in the database. A push of a button will allow litigants to "mediate" their case by carrying negotiations back and forth over the Internet between each side until a deal is done, all from the comfort of their (or more comfortable still—their lawyer’s) living room.
Can’t settle? No matter—another push of a button will let the computer set the value. Don’t snicker—the Web sites already exist (i.e., www.cybersettle.com; www.settleonline.com). They won’t calculate what your case is worth yet, but they only need the coming expansion of data management capacity, (and a few thousand cases to form the database), to develop that ability.
If you still aren’t satisfied, and only a trial will do, you will likely not do it in a courtroom. Your lawyer, and your adversary, instead will capture all of the testimony, exhibits and even detailed virtual reality re-enactments of your accident, onto a DVD. Then, with the help of skilled legal media specialists, your lawyers will distill their sides of the story into a couple of hours of "Dateline" style photojournalism. All objections and legal arguments will have already been ruled on (again, probably in a Webcast, not open court). The end results, just a few hours worth total, will be shown via the Web (or its descendant) to a huge panel of remote jurors.
They will watch the program at their leisure on their wall-size LCD televisions at home, like a mini-series. Deliber-ations will be done remotely in secure Web-based "chat rooms." They will then formulate their verdict by answering a series of questions given to them over the Web by the judge (who, like the jurors, will be sitting in sweats and fuzzy slippers at home). The verdict will then be transmitted to the litigants’ lawyers by e-mail, or they might opt for a "live" reading of the verdict by the foreperson, through the Webcam attached to the top of his television. It will all be over in a day.
Will any of this come true? Who knows. One thing is certain, though—you’ll have plenty of lawyers around over the next hundred years, and the next, to turn to when your maglev cars crash, your Web sites are hacked, you need a divorce from that perfect spouse you met online, or you’re caught trying to cheat on your ’Net account taxes. Just call—we’ll be here.