Richard Susskind has successfully positioned himself as the legal profession’s Nostradamus. He predicted widespread use of e-mail by lawyers back when the technology was new and most attorneys were dismissing its relevance due to privilege and confidentiality concerns. His latest book discusses how artificial intelligence, knowledge management systems and removal of regulatory restrictions will revolutionize how we practice law. It is provocatively titled, “The End of Lawyers?”
The London-based professor is on a speaking tour of sorts in the United States. Generously sponsored by DataCert and co-hosted by InsideCounsel, an event series titled, “Generals of the Revolution” features Susskind as the main attraction. The series includes general counsel panels and luncheon roundtables. I attended this event in Houston last month, and I wish to comment on what the professor’s vision could mean for your in-house career path. But first a brief summary of his general thesis is necessary.
Susskind’s vision: Currently available technology, emerging technology and outsourcing options will drive down the costs of providing quality legal services, and many law firms that continue within a business model of billable hours and associate leverage will fail. Knowledge management (KM) systems will enable inside counsel to accomplish more at lower internal cost, and KM will include sharing of work product, forms and best practices among legal departments from multiple companies. Many legal tasks can be performed by non-lawyers, and so law firms, consulting firms and technology firms will begin to merge and create efficient, cross-functional solutions for corporate clients.
Susskind believes that a new category of legal jobs will emerge to satisfy a technology based services delivery model, and he labels these positions under the heading of Legal Knowledge Engineer. Quoting from his book, “People with great talent are going to be needed, in droves, to organize the large quantities of complex legal content and processes that will need to be analyzed, distilled, and then embodied in standard working practices and computer systems. This new line of work will need highly skilled lawyers.”
Susskind is envisioning the legal version of a computer programmer, lawyers with subject matter expertise who will create artificial intelligence systems such as automated contracts drafting software.
Although not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison to what he has in mind, legal departments are already creating new roles that focus on systems. The legal department at ConocoPhillips, for example, employs a litigation manager with formal project management training and information technology experience. At eBay, the law department uses an internal procurement professional to handle the bidding process for outside counsel work. I have no doubt that many jobs will be created which are best labeled, in my opinion, as quasi-legal roles.
So, here is my view on what all of this means for your career as an in-house attorney. Firstly, I don’t think you actually want any of these new technology-oriented positions. It’s not that I think my readers fear technology. I simply don’t think these jobs will become highly paid. These roles will exist, after all, for the primary purpose of reducing legal costs. Moreover, I doubt my readers went through law school with this kind of end game in mind.
For your career, I think the essential takeaway lesson from “End of Lawyers?” is an appreciation for two words: project management. Susskind states that lawyers are generally bad at project management. He emphasizes the importance of the discipline, noting that many consulting professionals invest in years of formal training to become proficient at it. Susskind’s view is that project managers, whether they come from inside or outside the world of formal legal training, will rule the future delivery of legal services.
There was a great deal of discussion about project management among general counsel who attended the event in Houston. I saw a lot of head nodding when one GC suggested sending a few of her attorneys to a course on project management. It seems to me that successful inside counsel are already good at people management. Delegating, team building, securing the right service providers and matter oversight all sound like project management to me. But that’s only half right. To become a complete project manager, you will need to understand process improvement.
There is an opportunity here for you. I don’t think it lies in re-engineering your career to target an emerging category of quasi-legal jobs. Instead, I think it lies in proactively improving your skill set by getting some real training in project management. Understand that the term means much more than mere people management. Know that companies will be placing a premium on attorneys who can implement technology driven process changes. These lawyers will be the managing inside counsel with job security and handsome salaries. Become that lawyer, and all of the new quasi-legal professionals will be reporting to you.