Image: Oxford Univ. Press
Richard Susskind, U.K.-based legal futurist either you drink his Kool Aid or you don't. Those who don't contend that his dire predictions of the end of the legal profession are baseless. They assert that advancements in technology and institutional change haven't significantly changed the day-to-day the practice of law, because lawyers are trusted advisors to and advocates for their clients functions that can neither be outsourced to untrained personnel nor duplicated by machines.
Susskind refers to this resistant segment of lawyers as "the jealous guard" in his most recent book, Tomorrow's Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future. He argues that these naysayers are motivated by selfish, short-term concerns with little regard for the long-term strategic health of their law firms or the legal profession: "(M)ost senior lawyers ... will tend to be cautious, protective, conservative, if not reactionary. They will resist change and will often want to hang on to their traditional ways of working, even if they are well past their sell-by date. ... Operating as managers rather than leaders, they are more focused on short-term profitability."
About this, Susskind is no doubt correct. Often the senior lawyers who are most likely to dismiss his predictions have the greatest stake in the maintaining the status quo and their efforts to do so undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on the job opportunities of recent law graduates.
That senior lawyers are resistant to change is not a new concept for Susskind. Tomorrow's Lawyers reiterates many themes from his prior books, including The End of Lawyers. In the new book he adds updated statistics and analysis, and advice for new (and usually young) attorneys, predicting a somewhat turbulent vision of the near future. But, insists Susskind, it is also a hopeful vision, full of opportunities for those entering the job market.
He points to a "liberalization" trend as a driver of change, along with technology and consumer demands for cost-effective legal services. He says that liberalization is already afoot in the U.K. as a result of the passage of the Legal Services Act of 2007, which, among other things, allows non-lawyers to own and manage legal businesses by setting up "alternative business structures."
Although this concept has not yet passed muster in most jurisdictions, the United States among them, Susskind contends that because of globalization, the effects of liberalization are far reaching. "Even where there is not formal liberalization, we are seeing a liberation from the constraints of narrow thinking about the way in which legal services can be delivered. No one knows where this will lead us. ... All we can be sure of is that major change is upon us," he says.
In the coming decade there will be a vast assortment of new jobs available to those with law degrees including, he predicts: the legal knowledge engineer, legal technologist, legal hybrid, legal process analyst, legal project manager, online dispute resolution practitioner, legal management consultant, and legal risk manager.
He also asserts that the idea of liberalization will eventually be embraced by other jurisdictions resulting in a multitude of new legal employers, such as global accounting firms, major legal publishers, legal knowledge providers, legal process outsourcers, "High Street" retail businesses, legal leasing agencies, "new-look" law firms, online legal service providers, and legal management consultancies.
Most of Susskind's ideas make sense and comport with the realities of doing business in the 21st century. The effects of technological change and globalization are far reaching to deny that they have had an extreme impact on the way that business is conducted would be naive. Of course, the legal field is no more immune from these changes than any other profession. But given legal's tendency toward a "head in the sand" response to change, lawyers may be oblivious. "Too often, scant attention is paid to phenomena such as globalization, commoditization, information technology, modern business management, risk assessment, decomposing, and alternative sourcing," he says. "At its core, then, law is information-based. And we are in the middle of an information revolution. It is not making a wild leap to suggest that the law and the work of lawyers will not emerge unchanged."
For the most part, Susskind's overall analysis and his predictions for the legal profession over the next decade may be inevitable. We are in the midst of unprecedented change, which lawyers simply cannot afford to ignore.