“Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future” from British lawyer/futurist Richard Susskind is, by turns, inspiring and scary, useful and distressing. His blunt message: By 2020, law firms and lawyers will work in a radically different environment. Peek into his imagined future by taking this quick quiz from the book.
Which of the following tasks are litigators uniquely qualified to perform: 1. document review; 2. legal research; 3. project management; 4. litigation support; 5. electronic discovery; 6. strategy; 7. tactics; 8. negotiation; or 9. advocacy?
United Kingdom lawyers answer strategy and tactics; U.S. lawyers tack on advocacy.
Therein lies Susskind’s point: The other tasks will be outsourced to nonlawyers who will do the work more efficiently and less expensively than law firms. The equation: fewer tasks done by law firms=fewer lawyers=poof goes the leveraged pyramid upon which many firms are built. Susskind’s irreverent term for this: “decomposing.” (sounds like so much mulch.)
But then what? Here’s one key: collaboration. Clients will expect their law firms to work with one another, pooling information and resources, to be, to borrow a concept from “Seinfeld”—”frienemies.” In-house counsel also will be expected to reach out to the legal departments of competitors on, say, compliance issues.
Here’s Susskind’s example on banks: “My simple contention is that some banks could come together and share the costs of undertaking many of the compliance jobs that they have in common.” Susskind’s key word for this: “co-sourcing.” And, I think, Texas culture gives us a leg up. Our culture is, by nature, friendly, collaborative, practical. East and West Coast lawyers lack these advantages. For Texans, these qualities are natural resources, just like oil.
What about the billable hour? An associate GC friend of mine at a large Texas company sums it up: “My company is in the business of XYZ; it is not in the business of buying billable hours.” Susskind’s view is in alignment with my friend’s view: “most clients do not want to buy the time of experts. They want results, solutions, and practical … guidance.”
Susskind’s solution: Don’t price differently, work differently. Lawyers end up doing what they are uniquely qualified for (à la the quiz above) and let others do the rest. Attorneys and law firms still will make money, but it’ll be for fewer tasks performed in leaner, more nimble organizations.
Where will new law school graduates go in these organizations? Susskind lists the new jobs: legal knowledge engineer (using computer savvy to model and organize Big Data); hybrid lawyer (a family lawyer who is a trained psychologist); legal project manager (a lawyer who decides how a project is “decomposed”); legal risk managers (helping companies who prefer a fence at the top of the cliff to an ambulance at the bottom).
This is about adaptability and entrepreneurship, other skills at which Texans excel. Check out the website for the new law school in downtown Dallas, UNT/Dallas College of Law, which will have practical labs for each second and third year substantive course.
Susskind writes that lawyers will need to embrace the spirit of KMPG’s mission statement: “[W]e exist to turn our knowledge into value for the benefit of our clients.” True enough, and lawyers will organize knowledge into modules (say, a software-based decision-tree for clients who want to draft employment contracts) and then license the modules, or create closed knowledge systems in which users can build up bodies of knowledge with like-minded professionals (as with Legal On Ramp).
But, as Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story. Susskind’s view of fewer lawyers practicing traditional law—as opposed to his segmented and specialized jobs—is skewed by being a lawyer in the United Kingdom (a homogeneous society) and by a tilt towards mega firms (not every lawyer represents Fortune 500 companies). So, not surprisingly, he makes this startling statement: “As for … smaller firms with very few partners, aside from those which offer a genuinely specialist service … I find it hard to imagine how these legal businesses will survive in the long run.”
Whoa, those are fighting words here in Texas. Susskind’s model is inapplicable to a place—a mindset really—as diverse as the Lone Star State. When Texas’ founders negotiated a deal to join the Union, it included that the state, under certain circumstances, could split into five states. Susskind should tap into Tip O’Neill’s famous remark that “all politics is local.” Local, too, is the business of law in Texas, from elected judges to active local bar associations, to local counsel needs in far-flung jurisdictions to the need for hometown lawyers (big city and small town) to handle incorporations, wills, business litigation and family law disputes.
While Susskind is right that efficiencies will allow Texas lawyers to squeeze more time out of our workdays, he misses the other half of the equation: What will we do with the extra free time? My prediction is to provide our true service: imparting peace of mind to our clients. Time freed up is freed up not to make more money. A professional life involves more than making an extra dollar. Instead, it is to listen, counsel, advise and help. And, if greater efficiency empowers us to do so, lawyers will become more of what we once were: counselors at law. To borrow a phrase, we will not be going into the future, but back to it. Let’s enjoy the ride.