Why Lawyers Need To Know A Bit About The Future Of Everything

 Why Lawyers Need To Know A Bit About The Future Of Everything

 Paul Ippolito

Lecturer, The College of Law, Sydney Australia


Presented at the University of New South Wales – UNSW Sydney

 Legal Education Research Conference 2023 On Situated Learning: Climate Change, First Nations Recognition, Generative AI.

Monday 20th November 2023


Legal education stands at a pivotal juncture in the wake of the pandemic, where society is transitioning between old and new, tradition and innovation, and push and pull. This paper proposes a forward-thinking perspective that underscores the intricate connection between the future of the legal profession and the development of the post-pandemic world, encompassing pressing issues such as climate change, recognition of first nations’ rights, and the rise of generative AI.

The paper emphasises the need for legal education to be immersive, agile, and adaptive, both anticipating and responding to complex multi-faceted challenges. To this end, legal educators, law students, and lawyers are called upon to embrace futures thinking with a proactive and reactive stance, enabling them to comprehend and influence upstream developments and downstream societal outcomes.

The integration of futures thinking, incorporating foresight, strategy, scenario planning, and futurism, is proposed as an integral component of evolved legal education. Situated learning, which emphasises immersive experiences in real-world contexts, aligns well with futures thinking, empowering future lawyers to comprehend not only the law but also the broader societal influences shaping it.

Addressing complex issues necessitates an understanding extending beyond traditional legal boundaries, encompassing scientific, political, economic, ethical, and cultural contexts. This multi-faceted approach equips future lawyers with the wisdom to navigate an increasingly complex and uncertain world, where human and machine, local and global, and theory and practice intersect.

By adopting this approach, modern lawyers assume roles as guardians of justice, ethical influencers, visionaries, and empathetic human beings. They gain a deep understanding and versatility to anticipate and adapt to societal expectations and global challenges.

In conclusion, legal education must transcend merely preparing lawyers for the future; it must strive to shape the future through their actions. Through a blend of futures thinking and situated learning, we can cultivate agile lawyers proficient not only in the law but also in the broader interconnected issues influencing it. This proactive and reactive capacity positions future lawyers to play a crucial role in shaping our collective future.


What Is This All About?

This is not meant to be an academic paper.

You will work that out pretty quickly as you read on.

The abstract is probably the most academic sounding part.

Rather, it is about me writing a piece that advocates the benefits of futures thinking for lawyers and why lawyers, now more than ever need to know a bit about the future of everything.

It is a collection of ideas and thoughts that I have had over the years, as I increasingly meld my work as a lawyer, a lecturer who researches and teaches the future of law and more broadly, as a futurist.

In an era where our world is continuously being challenged and moulded by evolving societal norms and influences, technological advancements, and political issues, equipping law students as future lawyers with the ability to forecast and adapt to these shifts is imperative.

Lawyers must not just anticipate and understand the emerging issues of the day more quickly than ever, they also must be able to navigate alternative views and positions on such, as well as be part of the solution making.

This article by suggesting that by incorporating futures thinking into legal education, it will lay a robust foundation for producing agile and enlightened lawyers, capable of influencing the increasingly global nature of law as well as being of greater utility value to their firms, clients, and society regarding the complexities of a modern and ever-changing world and its future.

I am not advocating wholesale change to legal education, but rather introducing some basics of future thinking being taught to law students, so that as lawyers they will see it as a lifelong tool for anticipating and coping with the future.

I realise students already get significant interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary education at university level and through practical legal education, however what I am proposing is different.

As a legal educator, I want to float some concepts, ideas, principles, and suggestions that I hope you will acknowledge are worthy of a modern legal education and encourage you to start incorporating some of these into your teachings in some fashion somewhere.

Futures thinking has influenced my practical legal education over the past five years, through my future of law presentations. I am passionate about law students being aware of and learning about future based real-life contexts and situations that may be or are relevant to their future careers, now and for the span of a fifty-year career in law. Lately an urgency has crept into my teachings in this post-pandemic world where we have polycrises and challenges that we have never faced before and where I believe futures thinking is needed now more than ever.

Put simply, the process of futures thinking for me means having the personal time and space to look at a present or emerging issue reflectively, and workshopping it extensively in my mind over a period of time, and then canvassing it with others whose opinions I value (both likeminded and non-likeminded ones), considering the various different influences upon it and how these may play out in lots of different ways, considering the alternatives that may be relevant and the implications for such, if they are put into action.

The knowing of “a bit of the future everything” is therefore not just a catchphrase but also a call to action for the law students of today and as lawyers of the future, to think more strategically and prepare themselves as proactively as they can, for the global nature of society and commensurately lawyering, which is far different than they have ever experienced before.

By doing so, lawyers will also be more prepared than ever to deliver legal services in contemporary, diverse, progressive, culturally sensitive, and inclusionary ways and to immerse themselves as front and centre leaders in society.

The conference theme of situated learning and contemporary issues such as climate change, First Nations Recognition and Generative AI could not therefore be more reflective of the need for the above.

An Ultimate Reset Opportunity.

The reality is that the world because of the pandemic, has undergone a once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift, and we will never return to the way things were back in 2019.

Personally, I think it will be at least another three to five years before there is more clarity about what the “new normal” will look like, as we remain entrenched in what I see as a transitioning phase.

The pandemic has served as a catalyst for unprecedented global change. In this context, the modern post-pandemic lawyer needs, more than ever, to be an innovative, curious, holistic, and multi-disciplinary thinker. It is not just about the learning the law anymore. Nor it is even about just the business of law. Old ways of seeing and doing things just will not cut it, in this brave, new and uncertain world.

The future of everything focus that I espouse advocates law students having a broader understanding of as well as a more participatory approach through futures thinking in identifying and influencing global trends, from a range of sociological, economic, technological, demographic, geopolitical, cultural, and environmental perspectives.

Being able to see ahead helps everyone, whilst also providing opportunities for law students as future lawyers that they can capitalise upon to build upon early and quickly to adapt, position or expand their legal practices into allied and new fields.

Lawyers are and will continue to be the “go-to” person for post-pandemic complexity, uncertainty, complication, and contest. By embedding themselves more firmly (and with agility) into the discourse of current and future societal issues at the client, business, law firm, and community level, law students as lawyers of the future can enhance their value in the client user experience, better than ever before.

What Exactly Is “Everything”?

I always start my post pandemic future of law presentations with my “watch this space” issues. These show law students what is happening “upstream” in greater society, impacting the transition to a new normal post pandemic.

I try and make them to see what is happening in their current world (outside of their legal lenses) and what may be emerging in the world during the next 1,3,5,10,20,30 up to 50 years, as I point out to them this is potentially the span of their legal careers. This is critical so they can challenge their own reality as well as prepare for and pivot their legal practices as lawyers “downstream” for any potential impacts and, for that matter, opportunities created by these future focused emerging trends.

Some of these “everything issues,” over and above the climate change, First Nations recognition and Generative AI issues (which are already being well covered in this conference), include:

  1. The concept of doing things hybrid, which reflects the ongoing negotiation between past methods, pandemic ways of doing things transitionally and future possibilities. The reconciliation of legacy and future which is currently happening in post pandemic society is a negotiation between innovation and tradition, where forward-thinking approaches need to try and meet time-honoured practices in a respectful and inclusive manner. This balancing act often stirs considerable discourse and conflict, areas where lawyers excel in crafting a way through complex and competing issues. The shift towards workplace flexibility is a prime example which underscores the evolving challenges and dynamics faced by both capital and labour as employers and employees, as they adapt to the needs of a modern, socially engaged workforce and workplace, created by pandemic ways of operating. The future of work as a contemporary issue is therefore fundamental for future lawyers to understand.
  2. How organisational leadership is dealing with a plethora of contentious and complex value-laden societal issues and interests – think diversity, equity, and inclusion, sustainability, environmental, corporate, and personal social responsibility, and regulatory evolution and governance. All organisational leaders need guidance on these societal issues from their lawyers, irrespective of whatever the position they may be adopting is. These things are issues those future lawyers need to be aware of and understand in a multi-dimensional way, as well as being ethical legal influencers.
  3. The stock market as a forward indicator of how the economy will perform six to twelve months ahead, is one which at first glance my law students often question the relevance of. The importance of the economic, social, and political key indicators built into such, forward looking by their very nature, can show what potential impacts law firms and their clients may experience, as well as clues as to what practice areas may trend next. It also positions the future lawyer with an acute understanding of the broader issues impacting society and how they inter-relate. At the moment, the inherent volatility of the market speaks volumes about the polycrises we are facing and that we will continue to face as we transition post pandemic.
  4. Emerging technologies and digital transformation, what is coming next and how lawyers will need to advise on these and their inevitable second-order effects. I am thinking advanced AI, the metaverse, neurotechnology, autonomous vehicles, blockchain and quantum computing. These are all important for future lawyers to understand, at a basic level, enough to know what the technology is about, to the extent as to how it impacts existing practice areas, as well how it may develop into standalone practice areas over the course of their careers. The second order effects of such technologies are where lawyers will need to prepare for, in relation to arising issues and consequences such as risk, compliance, privacy, ethics and cybersecurity.
  5. Our mental health, well-being, and how the post-traumatic nature of the pandemic is playing out as we speak, is also a critical issue. This involves societal issues such as the integration between work and personal life, and reassessing our definitions of success beyond profit, focusing more on purpose than ever before as well as acknowledging respecting equity, diversity and inclusion in ways that now go beyond rhetoric. These things will also change (and impact) the way that law students see and undertake their practice of law as lawyers into the future. Wellbeing needs to be at the forefront of modern lawyering, and it needs to explore the implementation of progressive issues, especially those that in the past have been more rhetoric than reality.

As you can see, there are a myriad of uncertainties and opportunities arising out of the above future focussed issues, clearly reflecting prima facie, the need for the lawyer to be increasingly the “go-to” person, in a complex, different and progressive modern society.

Law students as future lawyers need to be smarter, and of higher value than ever for their own benefit, that of their clients, that of their law firms and be an indispensable pillar and what I call an ethical legal influencer for the good of greater society.

Lawyers therefore need all the help they can get and that is why I advocate for more future thinking in our law curriculums.

How Do We Do This?

Legal education is at a pivotal juncture, which I know we always seem to say it is.

The way we have taught things in the past just will no longer cut it into the future.

What I am urging here is a shift towards a more immersive, agile, and adaptive model of legal education teaching that encompasses basic elements of futures thinking.

This is one that better equips future lawyers with both the tools as well as sufficient private reflection time, collaboration opportunities with like and non-like-minded people and proper planning time to consider upstream developments, uncertainties, a different way of doing things and as well as their downstream societal implications and outcomes.

Law students and lawyers are always too busy dealing with the present, to worry about the future. I understand and respect that and I am not advocating that we necessarily teach cybernetics to every law student, the same as I do not believe that we should be teaching high level coding nor advanced GenAI prompt engineering. However, I do believe we should be starting to do one or two of the following things, which would be useful in making law students and future lawyers more forward focussed.

  1. equipping lecturers with an awareness of futurism, and some basic methods to blend futurism into their existing courses.
  2. running basic briefing sessions on futures thinking explaining its principles and basic methods like scenario planning and back casting.
  3. running workshops to practically apply these methods to anticipate and address future legal challenges.
  4. providing seminars on emerging technologies like advanced Generative AI, autonomous vehicles, neurotechnology, metaverse and blockchain to discuss their basic workings, as well as associated legal, privacy and ethical considerations.
  5. creating one off networking opportunities to engage with futurist associations, offering ideas exchange on contemporary topics like climate change and energy transition.
  6. having workshops on culturally significant issues, such as First Nations recognition to foster a deeper understanding of historical legacies, reconciling issues, facilitating ways forward and working through their legal implications.

I have kept the above suggestions deliberately simple as I recognise, we have a regulated and congested law curriculum. By just implementing one or two of the above things, we are at the least, exposing law students to futures thinking, over and above what relatively little is being done right now.

The Dream Of A Future of Law Curriculum

Finally, the aspirational lawyer and futurist in me really would like to see a more future-focused law curriculum. This could be done by having a dynamic “Future of Law” module in all law degrees and practical legal training courses. This module would feature a rotating selection of contemporary, near future, and long-term future related legal issues, allowing students to delve into each area.

The curriculum would be designed to present students with current innovations in law, ensuring they are up to date with the latest legal technologies and emerging trends. It would also teach students to proactively forecast and navigate imminent legal issues, preparing them for the immediate future, with practical skills and knowledge. Finally, it would explore speculative future legal scenarios, giving students a strategic longer-term view of potential future developments and their legal implications.

By regularly updating and rotating the topics, the module would stay relevant and provide a comprehensive exposure to future trends, beyond the scope of traditional legal education. This approach ensures that tomorrow’s lawyers are not only aware of impending changes but are also equipped to lead with innovation and foresight and are at the forefront of society.

Conclusion – Moving Forward

In conclusion, the modern legal education model must strive not just to prepare lawyers for the future but also to actively shape the future through their actions. By embracing a blend of futures thinking and situated learning, we foster the development of agile lawyers proficient not only in law but also in navigating the broader interconnected issues influencing it.

This proactive and reactive capacity empowers future lawyers to assume pivotal roles as guardians of justice, ethical influencers, visionaries, and empathetic human beings, ready to contribute constructively to shaping our collective future amidst ever-evolving societal change.

This can only be a good thing.


Paul Ippolito has been a lecturer at The College of Law in Sydney, Australia since 2008. He has also previously taught management at Western Sydney University. He embraces a multidisciplinary approach to the teaching of and practice of the law. With continuing expertise as a commercial lawyer, as principal of a legal and business advisory firm with two offices and as a high-performance coach and consultant to legal professionals, he brings a wealth of experience to his roles. Since 2018, he has actively engaged in researching and teaching the future of law, to law students and lawyers, advocating for a holistic and collaborative perspective as well as promoting to them that there is indeed a bright future.


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