• Jackie Nagtegaal

Think like a Futurist

Why Lawyers Need to Put on Their Futures Thinking Caps

While under lockdown, I spent so much time on the phone, on webinars and in conferences talking to lawyers, leaders, staff and technologists. These conversations unearthed a common thread: most of us feel that the world happened to us. It’s a belief that the COVID-19 pandemic reinforces very well: most of us are feeling increasingly powerless as we watch our plans and strategies crumble with the economies around us. The forces shaping our world today appear to be so far beyond our control, or that of any government. So, how do we overcome this sense of helplessness over the future that results in future fatigue?

This got me thinking about the potential power of cross-learning and tapping into the tools of “futures thinking” at the moment. Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared many of my futures tools with lawyers and have seen how it instils hope and creates enthusiasm for the future.  

First Things First: What is a Futurist?

Futurists are people who have studied Futures Studies or Foresight, and they are intellectually adventurous, optimistic, and believe in creating a better tomorrow. 

The future does not yet exist, its evolution is inherently uncertain and ruled by a large number of ‘conditionals’; therefore, it cannot be foreknown or predicted. However, it can be shaped, influenced and created. 

Futurists, who ‘research’ the future, focus on change and transformation management, using futures and systems thinking. The main task is to study the factors that are driving change, fostering conversation and creating awareness about the future and, ultimately, help generate consciousness and future vision. 

Five Facts about Futurists

1. Futurists articulate the future.

Futurists don’t predict the future; they look at the world through a paradigm of possibility, while considering all the factors that are at play. They scope the environment and try to anticipate different futures, yes- plural. This is a key element as many possible futures can emerge, and no one has a crystal ball to predict a singular, certain one. 

As a futurist, I look at the present and its surrounding environments to map out which futures appear possible. From there, it is about looking at those possible futures and asking whether they are plausible and probable. Out of these, we determine which are preferable. 

In this way, futures thinking helps us articulate the future we want. 

As lawyers, we get wrapped up in our world of cases, churning of fees and the admin of surviving and growing. We don’t spend enough time articulating the future, believing the law will always stay the same, as it’s one of the oldest professions in the world. But the law has always run congruous with man, and as we step into the future, legal practice will change shape and evolve. 

2. Futurists look at the whole. 

Futurists understand that the world is a complex system, and any area we practice in is made up of the sum of its parts. All these elements are dynamic and influence each other in a continuous feedback loop. Our future planning has to consider these dynamic relationships. The prevalent practice of linear solutions tends to be superficial. Still, it remains the typical approach for most of us, especially in running the business of our practices and in times of crisis. 

When we look at the whole, we don’t merely address symptoms; we try to understand the deeper levels, the systemic forces, and attempt to resolve them. 

As a lawyer, it would aid us at looking outside of the legal industry, to look at the changing behaviour of people, the way they interact and do business. It could prompt us to look at trends from other industries and understand the factors shaping the different PESTEL environments (i.e. the changes and shifts in the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, Legal landscapes).

3. Futurists are interactive, not reactive. 

Without foresight, we are mostly reacting to the world. In this reactive fashion, we continuously change as the world happens to us. Naturally, some of us try to plan and think there will be one certain future, which we proactively seek to pursue. The problem with this is that we’re betting on one tomorrow, which often sees many failures. It feels incredibly demoralising as the world spins into a direction our plans didn’t map out. 

Futurists tend to be interactive in their planning. We understand that many futures could emerge, we prepare for the possibility and continuously stay in a state of interaction with the changing forces of our world. 

4. Futurists collaborate and create

Futurists believe the more brains, the better, especially when we are facing problems. Once we’ve got a good understanding of the system we’re dealing with and our current environment, we want to map out plans and create scenarios. Group participation is critical, as it ensures different worldviews in exploring various futures that take the interior psychologies and ethics of many into consideration. 

By doing this as a group, we are collectively choosing the future we all want - the more support for the desired future, the higher the success of creating it. 

5. Futurists are conscious.

Future consciousness means we are aware of time. We understand the past, present and the future. It is the active skill of enhancing ourselves to think, feel and set goals for the future. Increasing our consciousness of the future allows us to be more open, presents the world on a spectrum of possibilities, and empowers us as we see we have a choice in shaping our world. 

Future consciousness is a value all firms should instil to ensure that everyone you work with looks out ahead and understands how the future unfolds and what power we have to shape it. It strengthens a team and its agility and productivity. 

A Future of Hope

As we move onwards, let us also try to retain the optimism and hope Futurists have. Moving through an increasingly complex world, we have to look forward with a sense of adventure and optimism, knowing that we have tools and intellect to interact with the world and the power to shape our surroundings and the firm we dream of. Let that future vision beckon you forward, and let that beacon become your driver.


Top tips for any law firm going forward:

  • Don’t try and repair the COVID-19 damage by returning to your old way of operating. Instead, re-imagine your firm, considering the PESTEL environment. 

  • Start thinking about sustainability. Read up on the circular economy and start thinking about how you can create a business model that is more sustainable. How can we start selling services differently, and what services you are selling. Also assess who you are selling it to. Many law firms are missing out on a significant number of people in their market, those that need service the most. How can you provide innovative solutions to them? What tools can you use to enable this?

  • Embrace cultural renewal in your law firm. Unlock the potential of your team by tapping into, and appreciating, all their skills and talents. We can’t just think like lawyers or technologists; we need creative and diverse thoughts to shape our future scenarios. 

  • Think outside of your EXCO or boardroom. Future consciousness has to become part of your culture. Your team has to understand it and think along with the possibilities of tomorrow. 

  • Redefine your purpose and meaning, and pursue that future you envision. Let that be the driving force that gets you through this crisis.  

*This article was written by Jackie Nagtegaal for the ILTA's new series #CreatingTheFutureTogether. Head on over to the ILTA to join the premier association of legal technologists.

©2020 Jackie Nagtegaal | Cape Town | South Africa