"The End of Lawyers"
By Richard Susskind
Book review by Colin Jasper
The evolution of markets
While most markets evolve gradually over many years, every so often we see markets transformed by disruptive technologies and breakthrough strategies. Think of the impact of digital imaging on the photographic market, the emergence of ‘big box’ specialty stores in retail and the influence of the Internet on classified advertising.
Clearly those who exploit such changes can make huge gains quickly (e.g Seek, Aldi). However those with the most to lose, the incumbent market leaders, generally find it hard to adapt. Be it a reluctance to cannibalise their existing revenue or being locked into their business model by extensive infrastructure, they continue down yesterday’s path.
Could such a transformation be coming to the legal market? According to a new book, The End of Lawyers?, not only is the transformation coming, it has already started. Given that the author, Richard Susskind, is Emeritus Professor of Law at Gresham College and IT adviser to the Lord Chief Justice in the UK, it is not easy to dismiss the possibility.
The drivers of change
Susskind believes two major forces will shape legal services in the 21st century – commoditization and information technology. No surprises there! What may surprise some readers is the impact Susskind perceives these changes will have, particularly on the role of lawyers and the structure of law firms.
Susskind points to the nature of work undertaken by lawyers. Many lawyers say they are primarily project managers, counsellors, deal makers, negotiators or risk managers. He therefore questions if processes could be changed to allow lawyers to focus on the highest value activities, possibly supported by non-lawyers and systems.
To address the situation Susskind challenges all lawyers to ask themselves what elements of their current workload could be undertaken differently – more quickly, cheaply, efficiently or to a higher quality – using alternative methods of working. In other words, what are their distinctive skills and talents that cannot be replaced by advanced systems or less costly workers supported by technology.
Disruptive legal technologies
While commoditisation alone could lead to the creation of different business models for law firms, it is the emergence of disruptive legal technologies that is likely to accelerate such changes. Susskind identifies nine technologies:
- Automated document assembly – Users answer a series of questions and a first draft document is created.
- Relentless connectivity – Technologies such as the Internet, Blackberrys, instant messaging, social networking and Skype all create the expectation of instant access.
- The electronic legal marketplace – The buying and selling of legal services online including the use of online auctions.
- E-learning – The use of multi-media techniques to deliver content in the form of training, knowledge sharing, marketing and other communications both internally and with clients.
- Online legal guidance – Web-based resources that might provide expert legal diagnosis, generate legal documents, assist in legal audits or provide legal update. They might be chargeable but they might not.
- Legal open-sourcing – Following the lead of open-sourced software, the informal, mass collaboration of a range of volunteers to generate free online legal material.
- Closed legal communities – Utilising the same technologies as open-sourcing, however with restricted access.
- Workflow and project management – Workflow and project management systems injecting efficiency and consistency into complex legal processes and activities. They are likely to delight clients but fly in the face of time-based charging.
- Embedded legal knowledge – Systems where the legal constraints are built in, so that users are unable to inadvertently err.
Many lawyers may think that the above technologies are not relevant to their market. While it is likely that many of these technologies will have their infancy in the commoditised end of the legal market, as they develop it is likely they will gradually infiltrate into more and more legal services.
Predicting the future
Susskind recognises that predicting the future is a hazardous business and provides a number of misguided examples (see breakout box). However he does in the final chapter predict there will be five types of lawyer in the future.
- Expert trusted advisor – Purveyor of bespoke legal services, a luxury that clients will not generally be able to afford.
- Enhanced practitioner – A lawyer or paralegal that supports the delivery of standardised, systematized and packaged legal services.
- Legal knowledge engineer – Outstanding lawyers who organise and distil the large quantities of complex legal content into standard working practices and computer systems.
- Legal risk manager – A proactive legal service whose focus will be on anticipating and pre-empting legal problems.
- Legal hybrid – Lawyers who are superbly schooled and genuinely expert in related disciples such as project managers, strategy consultants and deal brokers.
Predicting the future is a hazardous business
- "I think there is a world market for about five computers" – Thomas J Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943
- "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1½ tons" – Popular Mechanics, 1949
- "There is no reason that anyone would want a computer in their home" – Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
- "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" – HM Warner, Warner Bros, 1927
In addressing the title of the book Susskind does not believe there will be no lawyers, just significantly fewer providing traditional consultative advisory services. This has significant implications for today’s law firms.
The future of law firms
Susskind perceives a future where for any particular deal, dispute or other legal matter it will be disaggregated into manageable tasks, with each task allocated to be discharged in the most efficient manner. In this model, one individual organisation would take overall responsibility for delivery of the completed legal service, while outsourcing many components, similar to the construction industry. The question Susskind poses is will law firms take the opportunity this presents or be relegated?
If Susskind is correct, the threat to law firms is that major pieces of legal work in the future (e.g. disputes, deals, compliance reviews) could be orchestrated and driven not by lawyers but by project or risk managers from beyond the legal profession. They might argue that the major challenge on a particular matter is that of, say, risk management, and so risk managers and not lawyers should take the lead. In that event, they may say that the legal content can simply be sub-contracted to lawyers.
Along similar lines, Susskind asks us to imagine starting afresh and building a legal business from the ground up. He suggests that hard-nosed investors would bring a contemporary suite of tools and techniques for managing the delivery of legal services. That they would recognise the enormous amount of duplication of effort and reinvention of the wheel that takes place in existing law firms: and in turn, that there are too many lawyers and too few advanced systems.
Given the views expressed by Susskind, I suspect the response of most readers will be impacted to a large degree by their positional perspective, that is the role the occupy (see readers’ comments).
Readers' comments paraphrased from dust-cover
- President of the Society of Computers and Law - "I am confident that those (predictions) … will come to pass."
- Professor of Law – "Blending the futures of law and technology, Susskind’s vision (shows) the displacement that lies ahead – and the ways in which society can gain from it".
- Chairman of a client – "I strongly encourage law firms and in-house lawyers to read this book and to embrace the new methods and technologies that Richard Susskind is recommending"
- Senior Partner of a law firm – "This book paints a scary future."
Where to for today's law firms?
And so returning to the evolution of markets. Twenty years ago the photographic market was dominated by Kodak and Polaroid. With the emergence of digital photography Kodak embraced the change and through R&D and acquisitions evolved from a leader in silver halide to a leader in digital photography. Meanwhile Polaroid chose to rely on its existing business model, legally protected through patents, and in 2001 filed for bankruptcy protection.
Where will today’s law firms be in twenty years?
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