Susskind: lawyers think they’re immune to impact of technology

Susskind: high-definition desktop video conferencing could have major impact

Too many lawyers believe they are “somehow immune” from the effects of technology that are profoundly impacting the rest of society, Professor Richard Susskind has warned.

In his keynote address to this week’s Legal Futures Conference – part of which we reported on Wednesday – Professor Susskind said the pace of change in IT is a key driver that is “transforming all corners of the economy and society”.

The exponential growth of computer processing power could mean desktop machines are able to process information at the speed of the human brain by 2020 and as fast as “all of humanity put together” by 2050.

He singled out the imminent arrival of high-definition desktop video conferencing as a facility that “no one seems to be anticipating” but which could have a profound effect on the way they practise. “These are the kinds of technologies that lawyers are ignoring but actually are going to change the way we work and live,” he advised.

Underlining the point, he remarked that Twitter – a “fascinating mechanism for keeping lawyers up-to-date” – had 200 million members worldwide. Yet “I often have the sense that lawyers are waiting for it to take off”, he joked.

He suggested that “the Internet generation” would devise online forms of dispute resolution, underpinned by people’s natural desire to avoid disputes whenever possible. An example is the online auction site eBay, he said, which solves 60 million disputes annually, with “hardly any settling in the courts”, he said.

Professor Susskind highlighted developments in legal process outsourcing (LPO) – something he said was “looked upon with grave scepticism” by many lawyers only five years ago – to illustrate how far and fast the legal services market has moved on. Examples of innovation, he said, include the outsourcing by Thames Water of its legal department to Berwin Leighton Paisner; City firms sub-contracting legal work to English-qualified lawyers in New Zealand and South Africa working on lower hourly rates; and the purchase of global LPO provider Pangea3 by Thomson Reuters, which he identified as “probably the biggest legal business in the world”, with more than 1,000 lawyers and 2,000 software engineers.

Another significant development, he said, is the practice by City firm partners of bypassing their own assistants to outsource routine work to experienced partners elsewhere, in locations where labour costs are low.

He stressed the importance of making justice under the law the starting point for the profession and that legal help, of whatever kind, should be accessible and affordable.

“We’re at a crossroads right now. We’re about to define the future of the legal services sector. It’s up to us to step up to the plate and say yes, we can deliver better access to legal help; we can ensure justice under the law,” he said.


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