Law’s leaders on globalisation, climate change and the law firm of the future

A team of over 75 students from the University of Warwick recently ran one of the first-of-its-kind conferences in Europe. The three-day event provided students with academic talks, seminars and exclusive networking opportunities with leading industry professionals in finance, economics, law and politics.

The legal stream included the following keynote speakers and topics:

  • Simon Levine, Global Co-CEO of DLA Piper, on ‘Technology: What is the future of work? Digitisation, automation and disruption.’
  • James Thornton, founding CEO of ClientEarth on ‘Environment: How do we create a sustainable future? Energy, Renewables and the Circular Economy.’
  • Diana Wallis, President of the European Law Institute, on ‘Europe: Can liberalism survive the backlash? Globalisation and identity in a shaken world.’

We managed to get an exclusive interview with each speaker discussing both the subject of the talks and general current topics in their areas. Below is a selection of highlights from each interview.

Simon Levine, Global Co-CEO of DLA Piper

What do you think will be the challenges and opportunities for law firms moving into the post-Brexit era? Will there be a lot more demand for mergers of British companies with European ones so they can access the single market?

Simon Levine, DLA Piper
Simon Levine

One of the issues about Brexit is that people of course have those strong feelings about whether we should remain part of the EU or not.

Being non-political, the truth is that lawyers benefit from any change.

On a personal level, you may or may not want to see Brexit happen, and I’m not suggesting it’s great for lawyers to benefit from people’s unhappiness, but the fact is any change means a change in the law.

So clearly there are opportunities, if I can put it that way, there are things that are going to happen where lawyers are going to need to help in relation to Brexit. That said, we follow our clients, so if there is less commercial activity as a result of Brexit, whether that in the UK or in other parts of Europe, that will hurt large commercial law firms because we follow what our clients do and if they have fewer things to do we have fewer things to do for them.”

My own feeling is that overall it will balance itself out. We are a large global law firm, so if there is an uptake in Germany or France or Italy, then we can service that hopefully for our clients, even if there is a bit of a downturn in the UK. So we’ll have to see how it balances out, I have no idea, but I suspect for us it will end up being a reasonably neutral thing.

With Deloitte estimating that 114,000 jobs in the legal sector could be lost to automation in the next few years, what do you think the law firm of the future might look like?

I certainly think there will be some automation, I think law firms will change going forward. So of course, at the moment you have a lot of lawyers in law firms and that won’t change.

But what you will see increasingly change is the number of people who are not qualified lawyers, they have other skills; they may be accountants, they may be marketing experts, they may be data analysts or management consultants.

I do think you’re going to see more of that going on and you’re going to have more of those people in legal firms.

You’re going to have more legal technologists, lawyers who have traditional legal skills but are able to use technology and embrace it efficiently. But overall, I see technology as being an agent and an aid and I don’t see it as replacing lawyers or fundamentally changing what law firms are about.

Diana Wallis, President of the European Law Institute 

How do you think those who champion globalisation can make it work for those who fear it?

Diana Wallis
Diana Wallis

Clearly something is wrong. There is a disconnect between the elites, if you want to put it that way, and the families left behind. But, I think we probably need to do deal with that by systems of governance, people need to feel that they can relate to things that are closer to home. I strongly feel that the old-style centralised nation state is dissolving before our eyes, we’re not quite clear in which direction we need to go or how this is going to work; are we going to have going to have supra-national states?

It seems that the EU looks in difficulty. Are we going to go down to lower level so people feel more comfortable identifying, like what’s happening in Scotland and Catalonia?

We’re living through a moment of huge change in a sense and we need to find models of governance that can adopt and have flexibility to deal with issues of globalisation.

Many people feel the EU and the European Parliament aren’t doing enough. What do you feel are the greatest obstacles facing these institutions in being effective, impactful institutions?

I find it very strange because in my view the European Parliament has enormous powers but part of the problem is that it gets subsumed in the detail rather than looking at the bigger picture. When it tries to look at the bigger picture, it hits up against nation states and governments.

It’s a structural problem but it’s also a problem of communication because if you want to change things, you’ve got to convince people that yes, Europe is something a bit alien, but actually if you are prepared to give it a chance the big economic issues then it probably could react, it probably could do the job better.

James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth

How important is it for state governments to acknowledge the issue of climate change?

James Thornton
James Thornton

Climate change is the big issue facing us all, particularly your generation and the following generations…It is incredibly important for governments to acknowledge and address it. The Paris Agreement (2015) was a real turning point in history in that all the governments, of the world, did acknowledge it and promised to make important steps in dealing with it in reality.”

[Speaking on the U.S.] “…It’s very important the American government may be backing out… but all the other countries in the world have decided that they were going to remain committed.

China in particular remains committed, I was speaking with their chief climate negotiator awhile back and he said no matter what the United States did, China would remain completely committed to the Paris Agreement. The Chinese, as part of their environmental clean-up campaign, from the Supreme Court level down, have created environmental courts to create expert environmental judging, and have given Chinese NGOs the right to sue polluting companies.

The idea is this should generate the feeling of being ‘watched’. It is that feeling which you want to create everywhere – the feeling that everyone needs to comply with the law and that there is a rule of law.”

Regarding the COP21 and the Paris Agreement, what kind of legal instruments/sanctions can be enforced on countries who do not uphold their promises?

“There are two kinds of things states have to do: They have legal obligations to come up with a climate CO2 reduction budget, which needs to be revised every five years by each country. In terms of enforcement, there really isn’t anything enforceable [legally] by citizens through the courts. What you need to do is to get countries to go home and then pass laws within every country that create legally binding obligations on the government… so it’s going to be a country-by-country basis on whether it is something which citizens can enforce.”

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