“More for less”, liberalisation and technology: Susskind lays out vision of the future

Susskind: future for young lawyers is not Rumpole

The Legal Services Act will play a role in transforming the legal market around the world, with English lawyers well placed to take advantage as a result, Professor Richard Susskind predicted last week.

Giving a preview of his new book – Tomorrow’s lawyers: An introduction to your future – the leading academic also made a plea for legal education and training to take on board how technology is changing the role of lawyers, claiming that “we’re teaching lawyers to be something they no longer need to be”.

He was speaking at LawTech Camp London, an innovative event on law and technology run by Michigan State University – which is sponsoring a new ‘law laboratory’ called Reinvent Law to showcase innovation in the profession – Westminster University law school, the College of Law and MyLegalBriefcase.com.

Giving the keynote address, Professor Susskind said that “primarily and crucially” the Legal Services Act is bringing “an entrepreneurial spirit to the delivery of legal services in this country… the market is doing its stuff”. This will not be a local phenomenon, as it will “give rise to new ways of working that will be of interest to general counsel and clients around the world”.

Professor Susskind continued: “It may well be that in England we will be better placed to deliver these services because we can seek external investment or we can set up businesses that aren’t dominated by lawyers, but the techniques, the methods, the systems, the process and the solutions that evolve from liberalisation will ripple around the world – not over the next two years, but over the next decade.”

Liberalisation, along with the “more for less challenge” and technology are the three dominant themes of the future, he indicated. He disputed the suggestion that the worst is over for lawyers economically, saying that large companies are looking to reduce costs by 30-50%. “The pressure on in-house lawyers to reduce internal headcount and how much they spend on external law firms is going to grow steadily. This will define for most of us the rest of our careers.”

At the moment the alternative fee arrangements offered by firms are just “repackaging of the traditional proposition”, with firms simply not contemplating charging less and being a little less profitable, or working differently, Professor Susskind said. Confidential research he has seen showed that this was delivering savings of 10% at most.

The academic outlined his well-rehearsed theory about decomposing a legal matter into its constituent elements and then sourcing each one as appropriate; using litigation as an example, he said that large law firms acknowledged that they are “uniquely qualified to undertake” only two of the nine elements: strategy and tactics. “The rest of these tasks [such as document review, research and e-discovery] can now be undertaken by other providers at lower cost and often at higher quality.”

It is vital for lawyers of the future to be trained in project management skills, he stressed. “If we don’t do it, Accenture’s going to do it, Ernst & Young will do it, some other organisation will do it, and lawyers will be relegated to sub-contractors on major deals and disputes.”

He argued that the legal profession cannot ignore the march of technology. “If we can see the day when the average desktop computer has more processing power than all of humanity put together, it might be time for lawyers to rethink the way they draft documents. It just cannot be that the Internet is transforming all corners of society and the economy and yet it doesn’t apply to lawyers.”

Professor Susskind said his new book is “more optimistic” than his last one, The End of Lawyers?, by arguing that there will be new jobs in this technology-enabled future. “The future for young lawyers is not Rumpole, it’s not Grisham; it’s something quite different. It’s not one-to-one consultative advisory services on an hourly billing basis – it’s legal knowledge engineering, building online content, building online legal advisory systems. Legal technologists will become vital, genuinely dual qualified people who can build computer systems for use in law.”

Other roles include legal process analysts – who decompose the work and find the best way of sourcing it – and project managers who then bring it all back together, as well as online dispute resolution specialists. “Normal young people don’t want to assemble two years after a disagreement in a wooden courtroom with people speaking language they don’t understand to sort out a difficulty – why not just do it online?”

He continued: “What are we training in huge numbers young lawyers to become? Traditional, one-to-one, bespoke face-to-face consultative advisers who specialise in individual jurisdictions and charge by the hour? Yes.

“More flexible team-based hybrid professionals able to transcend legal boundaries and motivated to draw in techniques of modern management and information technology? Hardly ever anywhere in our world. We’re teaching lawyers to be something they no longer need to be.”

Professor Susskind said his wish was for all law schools to give students the choice of studying current and future trends in legal services, and also new legal skills, such as project management, risk management and process analysis. “If every law school in the world did this, it would transform the legal world.”



    Readers Comments

  • City lawyer says:

    “lawyers will be relegated to sub-contractors on major deals and disputes.”

    This happened a long time ago

  • Henry Scrope says:

    I think Richard misses an important point. He may well be right so far as big time commercial law is concerned but it seems likely, especially in the light of the Barclays debacle, that elsewhere a culture in which “service” for the client rather than “business” and “profit” for the law firm will (re-)appear. Anyway, I hope so.

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