A wake-up call to lawyers

By Nick Holmes on July 14, 2008
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Filed under Articles, Future of law

Professor Richard Susskind is, as I write, no doubt completing the final draft of his forthcoming treatise, The End of Lawyers? to be published in June by Oxford University Press.

More than 12 years ago he wrote its predecessor, The Future of Law. Then only a few of us had awoken to the internet; only a handful of firms had websites; there was no free law to speak of and no e-commerce; Google’s founders were still students and facebooks were still published annually in hard covers. Yet he then predicted remarkably accurately the shape of the legal internet of today.

In six extracts published recently in Times Online he gives us a taste of his updated thinking and asks us to help him finish the new book!

  • He challenges lawyers to embrace change.
  • He revisits some of the predictions he made in The Future of Law.
  • He argues that lawyers will give way to multi-disciplinary advisers.
  • He says that clients will not remain loyal to conventional practices.
  • He asks who is looking beyond the next five years.
  • He addresses his critics and says they have missed the point.

Here are extracts from the extracts. The headings are mine, with apologies to the author.

Face up to it

“The law is not there to provide a livelihood for lawyers any more than ill-health exists to offer a living for doctors. Successful legal business may be a by-product of law in society, but it is not the purpose of law. And, just as numerous other industries and sectors are having to adapt to broader change, so too should lawyers. —

The challenge is not to assess how commoditisation and IT might threaten the current work of lawyers, so that the traditional ways can be protected and change avoided. It is to find and embrace better, quicker, less costly, more convenient and publicly valued ways of working.”

No, I am not dangerous or insane

“I argued that many of our fundamental assumptions about the nature of legal service and the nature of legal process would be challenged by the coming of information technology and the internet. In other words, much that we had always taken for granted in the past, about the way that lawyers work and the way non-lawyers receive legal guidance, would change through technology. —

When I suggested ten years ago that e-mail would become the principal means by which clients and lawyers would communicate, many people suggested I was dangerous, that I was probably insane and that I certainly did not understand anything about security or confidentiality.”

The e-volution is upon us

“Lawyers, like the rest of humanity, face the threat of ‘disintermediation’ (broadly, being cut out of some supply chain) by smart systems; and, as in other sectors, if they want to survive, their focus should be on re-intermediating – that is, on finding news ways of invaluably inserting themselves in supply chains. This will lead, I believe, to the emergence of what I call ‘legal hybrids’: individuals of multi-disciplinary background, whose training in law will have evolved and dovetail with a formal education in one or more other disciplines. —

I am not suggesting that there will be no call for the traditional legal expert. I am saying there will be less call for these individuals, because new ways of satisfying legal demand will evolve and old inefficiencies will be eliminated.”

Your clients will vote with their wallets

“The major firms may feel they are beyond the scope of commoditisation and systematisation and that, on bet-the-ranch deals and disputes the legal fees represent but pocket change in the grand scheme. But this is not the attitude I find amongst the general counsel of some of the world’s largest organisations.

These managers are under pressure to reduce their legal budget. And these clients’ loyalty to conventional firms will be limited if new legal businesses emerge that offer quicker, more convenient, lower cost alternatives to low- and high-value work that seem to be more geared to the interests of clients and are more business-like in their constitution.”

Think of your children

“No-one who might be thought to be in the driving seat of the legal system is thinking systematically, rigorously and in a sustained way about the long term future of legal service. No-one seems to be worrying about the fate of the next generation of lawyers.

It is assumed that legal guidance will continue to be dispensed by skilled professionals as a one-to-one, consultative advisory service. By and large, no discontinuities, transformations, upheavals, disruptions or revolutions in the nature of legal service are being contemplated.”

Wake up!

“Open-minded lawyers, and those who genuinely care about the interests of their clients should be looking at ways in which IT can play a more prominent role in their services. there are existing and emerging technologies whose widespread adoption will effectively render [some lawyers] redundant. ‘disruptive legal technologies’ [will] challenge and replace them, in whole or in part.

Most are phenomena of which most practising lawyers are only dimly aware. If lawyers are barely conversant with today’s technologies, they have even less sense of how much progress in legal technology is likely in the coming 10 years. Politely, it puzzles me profoundly that lawyers who know little about current and future technologies can be so confident about their inapplicability.”

Comments anyone?

In keeping with the times, Times Online elicited online comments from readers to each of the articles. These served the purpose of not only engaging the readership, but also providing feedback to assist Susskind in completing his work.

A number of commentators ignore the telling question mark at the end of the title The End of Lawyers? and the sub-title rethinking the nature of legal services. Even the Times itself is guilty, asking “Will lawyers still exist in 100 years?” If lawyers are those who do legal work, then the answer is “Of course they will”. But that is not the question; the question is rather “What shape will lawyers be in?” Reliance on the fact that there will always be lawyers will not help those lawyers who fail to adapt to the changing landscape.

Others point out that there will always be high-end/complex legal work that cannot be commoditised, but here again, this is a rather narrow interpretation of Susskind’s point. “Commoditisation” and even “systematisation” may imply automation of the repetitive but not necessarily much more. But law is a knowledge business and when looking at the prospects for lawyering, including high-end work, think also “collaboration” and “collective intelligence” and other words which are to the fore in the current Web 2.0 world to see where some of the new efficiencies will lie.

There is also more substantial comment in the blogosphere and in the legal press, which you can find readily by Googling “the end of lawyers” susskind.

As to the immediate future, Susskind counsels (in his contribution to the SCL 2008 predictions):

“My advice to lawyers and law firms everywhere is to take Web 2.0 very seriously indeed in 2008. We are entering a new era of Internet activity, one that will directly affect the daily working lives of legal practitioners. The impact on the legal profession of social networking and online collaboration will be profound. I am more confident about this than I was, in 1996, when I said that the Internet would transform the communication habits (e-mail) and information-seeking habits (the Web) of lawyers. In 2008, we will see the beginnings of the legal world embracing Web 2.0.”

Web 1.0 facilitated the delivery of information and transactions between producers and consumers and set the ball rolling; Web 2.0 is transforming the medium into one that challenges the traditional roles. Susskind argues lawyers should see the writing on the wall: the acquisition, processing and application of legal know-how is no longer the preserve of (traditional) lawyers.