Fundamental changes to the legal profession over the past 17 years and key predictions – part 1

Key takeaways

  • As family complexities and structures change, corporate and personal structuring advice, property, and wills and estate protection and strategy must also evolve and adapt to stay ahead.
  • The compliance burden on businesses is rising and the risks and penalties for non-compliance are ever growing. Robust structuring, risk mitigation strategies and strong documentation are essential for business success.

In the 17 years I have been in law, 15 of those with Hillhouse Legal Partners and the past two years as Managing Director of the firm, the way businesses and lawyers operate has changed in the most profound and fundamental of ways.

This has primarily been driven by technology, an ever increasingly connected global marketplace and an expectation of almost instantaneous service.

Handshake deals over a long lunch still occur, but are becoming the exception rather than the norm. 

Companies recognise the need to protect themselves, products, services, staff, brands and IP as we operate in a more litigious society.

The world we live in now has ever-increasing regulation and rapidly-changing legal landscapes.

Take something as simple as a contract. Only a decade ago, the document almost certainly would have been mailed or delivered to the client who would sign it and return it by post.

The process was more time-consuming than would be acceptable by today’s standards. Contracts are now emailed, signed, and electronically exchanged, sometimes within minutes.

This unrelenting technological advancement coupled with the increase of speed, continues to alter the entire way business and legal affairs are conducted.

With technological advancements such as Blockchain, we are even starting to see the advent of “smart contracts” where self-executing contractual arrangements are consummated on public ledgers.  

These changes to the practice of law pertaining to the conduct of our clients’ businesses are tangible, visible and relatable.

What is less obvious, are changes to laws, regulations and legislation around businesses, taxes and personal assets which, sadly some business owners remain unaware of until they fall foul of such amendments.

These less obvious changes can have a profound impact on personal relationships and the financial performance of our clients if they are not understood or foreshadowed.

As the family dynamic changes, so does the need for estate law

Other changes we have seen include those in the family dynamic and the types of familial relationships that people now have. People are living longer, entering into second marriages and blended families, generally have more valuable properties and higher superannuation balances and therefore, generally have significantly larger and more complicated financial affairs.

This has seen fundamental changes in both family and wills and estate law. 

Given the sometimes complex nature of today’s family structures including step-children and second marriages, in cases of family estrangement, divorce or separation, an individual’s wishes can change and if those wishes are not reflected in their Will, this can lead to problems including challenge against the Will.

Larger estates because of increased house prices and superannuation funds also mean more potential for disaffected beneficiaries to attempt challenging a Will.

Parallel to this is the fact we have an ageing population who have, or will soon, move into retirement. This latest group of retirees are astute, money savvy and rather than relying on government benefits, have often been able to accrue enough assets and funds to become fully or partly self-funded retirees.

The law around ensuring that a Will is valid and has the best possible prospects to resist a challenge has become more complex than was previously the case. As estates grow the risks associated with getting it wrong also multiply.

There are a variety of reasons that Wills can be challenged and if the correct process, language and provisions are not followed or included, a Will or parts of the gifts therein can be varied by the Court or the Will itself can be declared invalid. This may result in a person’s estate being distributed contrary to their wishes and also leads to the size of the Estate decreasing because of legal costs.

Most commonly we see problems arise where people have attempted to do something such as using a home Will kit or writing their own Will.

This can cost their family members tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the unclear non-compliant Will enforced or administered, not to mention the stressful toll such matters have on loved ones all caused from a lack of having a lawyer draft the Will.

All of this has significant implications for estate planning and litigation including having effective and valid Wills, Advanced Health Directives and an Enduring Power of Attorney in place.

Globalisation and automation has pushed and expanded commercial and employment law

There have been significant changes in commercial law with increased globalisation, the Internet of Things, Blockchain technology, data protection requirements and IP protection.

Take websites for example. How many of those carry disclaimers and policies? And those that don’t almost certainly should.

Even for those with disclaimers, how many of those have taken into account significant recent changes in data privacy laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation?

The area is constantly evolving and in an increasingly interconnected world where information is shared on a broader level than ever, it is vital businesses and individuals know what information is being collected.

When data is being collected, questions need to be asked for example how it is being used, and stored and by whom?

Businesses are more aware of the need to protect their own IP and their brand as a way to protect their reputation and customer-base.

From trademarking to tailored shareholder agreements, to terms of conditions of trade and for online interactions with businesses, the legal requirements and protections available are greater than ever. 

These changes have required lawyers to adapt and advance more quickly to ensure our clients are protected.

Integrated business and personal client accounts are seeing employers require robust employment agreements and contractor agreements, super and taxation compliance and reporting with significant fines for any business that is non-compliant to counter amongst other things government pushing revenue collection, compliance and reporting to individuals and businesses.

Businesses are also responsible for collecting and remitting GST, state taxes on certain property transactions, FIRB declarations and various other additional taxation reporting and collection activities such as SuperStream payments for employees.

The regulatory and compliance burden on businesses is ever growing and coupled with a more litigious and less risk averse society all businesses need to be keenly aware of such requirements and have structures and robust agreements, contracts and documents in place to ensure risk and exposure for non-compliance is minimised.

To find out more about how the legal landscape has changed in relation to changes in property and development, hotels, accommodation and resorts as well as how lawyers need to flexibly provide service, Stay tuned for Part Two of this story.

The information in this blog is intended only to provide a general overview and has not been prepared with a view to any particular situation or set of circumstances. It is not intended to be comprehensive nor does it constitute legal advice. While we attempt to ensure the information is current and accurate we do not guarantee its currency and accuracy. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the information in this blog as it may not be appropriate for your individual circumstances.