Based in the U.K., Richard Susskind is the world’s pre-eminent legal futurist. His new book, “The End of Lawyers?” (Oxford University Press, Dec. 2008) is extraordinarily timely, as many factors are coming together to accelerate change in law.
I met Susskind recently in Wales for a conversation about the future of law. Susskind explains how change is likely to come to a change-resistant profession.
One of your earlier books, “The Future of Law,” was about a 20-year transformation of legal services, propelled in part by technology. How did lawyers react to that book and how did that affect your approach to “The End of Lawyers?”
“The End of Lawyers?” is a sequel to “The Future of Law.” The reaction was surprising and remarkable. In the U.K., it created quite a stir — some seemed to like it a lot while others detested it. I was predicting, for example, that e-mail would come to dominate the way lawyers and clients would communicate and that the Web would become the first port of call for lawyers when undertaking research. Some senior lawyers called for me not to be allowed to speak in public. In any event, it created debate, it challenged the status quo, and widened some people’s horizons. Above all, it taught me to be brave in my predictions and not to shy away from controversy.
The title of the new book is a pretty extreme hypothesis. Do you really foresee a world with no lawyers?
As I say in the first chapter, the question mark in the title should at least hint that I wrote it not to bury lawyers but to investigate their future. My aim was to explore the extent to which the role of the traditional lawyer could be sustained in coming years in the face of challenging trends in the legal marketplace and new techniques for the delivery of legal services. The book is neither a lawyer-bashing polemic nor a gratuitous assault on the legal profession but a collection of predictions and observations about a generally honorable profession that is, I argue, on the brink of fundamental transformation. The book points to a future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today and, in some walks of life, will indeed have no visibility at all. This, I believe, is where we will be taken by two forces: by a market pull towards commoditization and by pervasive development and uptake of information technology. At the same time, I identify a whole new set of jobs for lawyers who are prepared to spread their wings.
Lawyers seem to think in many ways that law is sui generis as an industry and not subject to ordinary economic laws. Where does that thinking come from and where is it likely to go?
For most large law firms, business has been good over the past decade or two. The underlying business model has worked well, there has been a steady flow of work, fee income and profitability have increased steadily and remarkably. While other sectors have struggled, lawyers have endured and prospered unstoppably. But the party is now over. The credit crunch is going to accelerate change in the legal profession, bringing much more demanding and discerning clients who increasingly will require more work at lower fees. And I believe that lawyers, in order to survive and prosper, must respond creatively and forcefully to this impending demand.
Can you compare where U.S. and U.K. law firms and law departments are in developing along the lines you forecast?
I’ll focus on large firms and legal departments. Taking the last first, I find that in-house lawyers are keen on the idea of using much more technology and of moving towards commoditization, but they lack the resources and the time to do so. Although they might benefit the most, they are the least advanced. U.S. law firms, I say, were far quicker in the early 1990s than U.K. firms to embrace office automation for lawyers; but now [the U.S. firms] are some way behind the most technologically thrusting of the U.K. firms. The latter have invested more, for example, in knowledge management and in online legal services. Understandably, the best of the U.S. firms have not yet seen why they should bother. Business has been very good without that stuff, thank you very much. But times are changing, [there is] less work [from] more demanding clients. These new techniques will move from being optional extras to key ways of working.
What milestones can we look to in the next 24 months to suggest that your model of the future is correct?
Generally, my predictions are longer term than 24 months. Bill Gates is right when he says — and I paraphrase — that less happens in the world of technology than you expect over two years but there is much more change than you anticipate over a 10 year period. That said, look out for two major growth areas in the next two years. The first is legal process outsourcing. The Big Four tax firms have already shown how complex professional work can be outsourced to India and other low cost centers. Lawyers will and should follow suit. The second is collaboration amongst clients … to share the costs of some legal services, such as [on] regulatory compliance matters.
Can you explain the Legal Services Act and its implications for U.S. law firms?
Crudely, this legislation permits, in England and Wales, the setting up of “alternative business structures” — new types of legal business. Crucially, non-lawyers will be able to invest in and build legal businesses; and non-lawyers will, in turn, play genuinely key roles in running law firms and new-look legal businesses. These individuals will not be committed to the ways of the past. They will explore call centers, outsourcing to India, online legal services, the automatic generation of documents and much more. The delivery of legal services will be a very different business when financed and managed by non-lawyers. And when clients see that legal services can be delivered more cheaply, efficiently, quickly, and to a higher quality using new methods and business models, then they will ask the same of traditional law firms, wherever they are located.
Paul Lippe is a founder and chief executive officer of Legal OnRamp.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.