Tomorrow's Lawyers, book by Richard Susskind.
Tomorrow’s Lawyers, book by Richard Susskind. ()

Lawyers and change make for uncomfortable bedfellows.

It’s probably just as well, then, that the industry has historically been one of conservatism and tradition. For the most part, it’s been a case of evolution, rather than revolution.

But change is now coming, whether firms like it or not. The combination of a continued flattening of demand for legal services and severe pricing pressure from clients is forcing firms to drive efficiency in an attempt to cut costs and maintain their margins. The influx of alternative service providers and the advent of new technologies, meanwhile, is also threatening to fundamentally alter the competitive environment.

Alastair Morrison, head of client strategy at U.K.-based Pinsent Masons, said that it is now “imperative” for law firms to reassess their business models. The firm, which employs a software engineer as a full-time head of research and development, has launched a number of innovative initiatives, including a cloud-based regulatory compliance business.

“Lawyers cannot deny that change is happening—the consequence of that is that you have to adapt in order to stay relevant. If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less,” Morrison said. “With the exception of a very small number of elite firms, if your business model is just lawyers delivering legal services, that isn’t sustainable. Lawyers will obviously always be an integral component of law firms, but there has to be more focus on other skill sets, such as data analytics and project management, and more investment in technology.”

Indeed, Allen & Overy senior partner Wim Dejonghe said that it will be essential for law firms to look beyond traditional legal services in order to be successful in the longer term. A&O recently launched a new tech startup initiative that saw eight companies given free office space within the firm’s London headquarters, and last year teamed up with Deloitte to launch a technology product that helps banks deal with complex new derivatives regulations and that generated revenue for 18 of the firm’s offices in the last fiscal year.

“In the last few years the opportunity for law firms to differentiate has shifted,” Dejonghe said. “Expertise and global footprint are still very important, but there’s also been a new focus on delivery: how technologies and innovation when it comes to process and different types of resourcing can be deployed to create new solutions to our clients’ challenges. Some legal processes still function in a really archaic way, so there’s a lot of room for disruption and those who manage to harness that will do very well.”

This month, The American Lawyer is serializing the second edition of Richard Susskind’s “Tomorrow’s Lawyers,” which charts a path through the changing legal landscape. In this week’s chapter, on “The Future of Legal Services,” Susskind argues that the development of new technologies means that legal services can not be just systematized, but externalized, with lawyers “pre-packaging” their experience and making it available to clients online. Such an approach would reduce costs and the time it takes to carry out work, he said, while providing budgetary certainty and even increasing quality.

Susskind accepts that many lawyers “respond dismissively” to the idea of online legal services, but said firms should be “focus[ed] on helping our clients to meet their formidable more-for-less challenge rather than obstinately holding on to outdated, inefficient working practices.” And in addition to providing “dramatically lower costs” for clients, online services offer law firms “the opportunity to make money while they sleep,” he writes.

Some firms have already externalized some services, such as Cooley’s GO project, which provides free legal documents for startup companies. A spokesman for Cooley said that visits to the site, which recently added new documents for seed funding and setting up social enterprises, are up 40 percent over the past 12 months.

But Dentons vice-chair Richard Macklin said it is unlikely that anything but commoditized work will be carried out via online resources in the near future. Macklin has already experienced this change firsthand, as a former debt recovery lawyer at legacy U.K. firm Wilde Sapte, when that work was eventually automated.

“I’ve already been replaced by a computer once in my career, so I’m not taking anything for granted, but [externalization] is a long way away,” he said. “Lawyers don’t just have to know the law—they have to find creative solutions to complex problems. When it comes to problem-solving and negotiation, all sorts of soft skills come into play. That would be quite difficult to dehumanize.”

Chris Johnson is based in London, where he writes about global law firms and the business of law. Contact him at On Twitter: @chris_t_johnson.


Excerpted with permission from Tomorrow’s Lawyers by Richard Susskind. For more information, click here.