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Richard Susskind is legal technology’s Nicholas Negroponte. In 1995 Negroponte, the co-founder of the MIT Media Lab and Wired columnist, explained the Internet to the masses in his book, “Being Digital.” Susskind has somewhat similar aims for the legal profession in his latest book, “Transforming the Law” (Oxford University Press). Just as Negroponte popularized the notion that the currency of the future is bytes and bits, not bricks and mortar, Susskind hopes to persuade lawyers that their profession is moving away from words on a page and personal service to expert systems and online services. “My expectations of IT and the Internet are that they will fundamentally, irreversibly and comprehensively change legal practice,” Susskind writes. It’s not an easy sell. Susskind ran into a wall of 300-pound linemen after the 1996 publication of his book “The Future of Law.” For several years afterward, Susskind writes in his new book, lawyers expressed a disbelief that “the online legal revolution would really extend into the legal domain” and ruffle the centuries-old, book-bound legal profession. Susskind, a U.K. professor, consultant, and legal technology expert, is not a geek-come-lately. He’s been exploring the intersection of law and technology since the early 1980s, when his fascination was with artificial intelligence, a phenomenon just now emerging from the lab. He will elaborate on his views today as the keynote speaker at the LegalTech Show in the New York Hilton. (The show is produced by American Lawyer Media, The New York Law Journal‘s parent.) Over time, lawyers warmed to Susskind’s message. In 1999, three or four years after most of the rest of the commercial world had accepted Negroponte’s vision, lawyers finally woke up and smelled the Java. Lawyers had become accustomed to using e-mail and even sharing documents with clients through extranets, virtual deal rooms and other Web tools. But these modest steps away from the realm of phones, faxes, and file cabinets aren’t what Susskind envisions in “Transforming the Law.” He believes that within the next 15 years most legal work will be conducted online, with live humans reserved for the rarified transactions that resist being automated by computerized systems. The newchange system of London’s Allen & Overy, for example, hints at this future. Newchange produces and automates complex loan documents, building them with Lego-like modules. It doesn’t bill by the hour or demand boom-year bonuses. Neither does Blue Flag, a service of London’s Linklaters that assists clients in wading through the maze of regulation governing cross-border banking deals. These early-stage expert systems will increasingly become commonplace, according to Susskind, and increasingly be available for use in what he calls the latent market. This is where a client ought to be getting legal advice but isn’t because it would be too time-consuming or cumbersome to do so. “Clients want a fence at the top of the cliff,” Susskind said in a recent interview, “rather than an ambulance at the bottom.” If such seismic shifts do occur, there are firms that will be left behind. In his book, Susskind writes, “Some major firms, even some of the world’s outstanding practices, may collapse over the next 10 years unless they embrace various new technologies.” When interviewed, Susskind is more circumspect, predicting that it may be the mid-sized firms unable to invest in technology that get acquired or go out of business. Assuming, for example, the firms like Avery & Overy continue to embed their knowledge into smart loan documents, “I don’t see how a medium-sized firm can compete.” The largest Luddite firms may continue to exist independently, but in crippled form. “Large firms will sort of just fall behind and people will say, ‘Oh, remember, that firm?’ ” Susskind says. Of course, this radical world view depends on a outside agitator, a force to shake up the status quo. Susskind sees that force not so much in innovative law firms but in the familiar bogeyman of accounting firms. As they march into their profession, with their knowledge of systems, routines and automation, they will start to pick off the work that fills the days of junior associates. “I see great scope for them to identify and commoditize great swaths of routine and repetitive works that are currently being handled by lawyers in the traditional manner,” Susskind writes. Susskind, of course, is not the first to forsee the emergence of computer-generated law or the arrival of the accountants. He has, however, captured those trends nicely in his book. His real value, however, may actually lie elsewhere — in his model for understanding legal technology, which he lays out in the book, and his anecdotal sense of why London firms are beating New York firms to the punch, which he revealed in his recent interview. First, the model. Let’s draw two intersecting lines, breaking a page into four quadrants. The left side of the horizontal line is labeled technology, the right, knowledge. The idea is that, as firms move from left to right, they move up the technology food chain, advancing from mere back-office functions to high-level management of knowledge. Now, let’s switch axes. The bottom of the vertical line is labeled internal, the top, external. The idea here is that as firms move up the line, they are increasing their use of technology on behalf of clients, rather than merely for internal purposes, like time and billing and document management. With the universe of legal technology now neatly divided into quarters, what do those quarters mean? For starters, the bottom left quadrant, where technology and internal meet, is the land of back offices. The top left quadrant is where technology is deployed interactively with clients, but the nature of the lawyer-client relationship stays the same. Susskind reserves this quadrant for client relationship systems. Think deal rooms, e-mail, document archives, and the like. The bottom right quadrant is where technology has blossomed into knowledge, but is being used internally — hence the label internal knowledge systems. Here, Susskind is talking about intranets, know-how databases, and precedent libraries. Now, the final quadrant, the top right, is where knowledge is being deployed externally on behalf of clients. This is the sweet spot of technology. This is where Linklaters’ Blue Flag system resides, but not all that much else in the grand scheme of today. It should not be much surprise to learn that Susskind believes that firms ought to be robustly using technology in all four quadrants, especially in the two right-hand quadrants, and most notably the top one. “It is here that competitive advantage will be secured, that new business opportunities will arise, that legal brands will be strengthened, and ultimately, it is here that profits will be made,” Susskind writes. We aren’t there. In 1995, most large firms were firmly settled in the back-office quadrant. By 1997, with the acceptance of e-mail and emergence of some know-how databases, they have crept into the bottom right and top left quadrants. Today, they are moving further into those quadrants and nibbling at the sweet spot. “At the time of writing this chapter, in June 2000, I can safely say that I have seen more progress in the last two years of my work in the field of IT and law than in the previous eighteen,” he writes. What the model or the book doesn’t explain is why the British firms are farther along than New York firms, with the exception of a few leaders like Davis Polk & Wardwell. It wasn’t always that way. Five or six years ago London firms were behind technologically. But while the New York firms had these huge legacy back office systems they were committed to supporting, their British counterparts could leapfrog beyond the plumbing state and start innovating. “They didn’t have to worry about what to do with the back office,” Susskind says. The explanation also has a cultural component. While the U.S. firms have focused their technology investments on ways to reduce costs, the U.K. firms have also emphasized how to improve service, how to build the fence at the top of the cliff. Why is this so? Susskind speculates that it may be because the U.K. general counsel are a tight-knit bunch who operate as a quasi-guild (my terminology, not his) to demand better service. And it may be because the firms simply are more willing to make investments without immediate payoff. They are less profits-per-partner obsessed, in other words. “Transforming the Law” is not a perfect book. Susskind spends more time anticipating criticisms than I would prefer and less time developing a unified theory. The second half reprints and updates Susskind’s early scholarship, much of it focused on artificial intelligence. I could have done without that. But he’s the best lawyer out there today thinking about where firms should be headed tomorrow.

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