The end of lawyers? Richard Susskind’s vision of the future of legal practice

By Michael Rappaport

Can you imagine a world without lawyers? When Lionel Hutz, the Simpsons’ shyster attorney on the long-running animated series contemplated this possibility, it brought a chilling apparition to his mind of people of all nationalities holding hands and dancing around in a circle under a rainbow.

Legal technology guru Richard Susskind’s vision of the future of the legal profession isn’t quite so bleak. Susskind, a distinguished law professor from the U.K., has written extensively on the evolution of the legal profession and the impact of emerging technologies. In an unconventional move, he decided to preview extracts of his forthcoming book, The End of Lawyers? in the London-based newspaper, The Times.

In an interview with The Lawyers Weekly, he explained his rationale.

“Traditionally when you write a book it is a fairly solitary exercise, you might get one or two friends or colleagues who will read it through for you, but you really don’t receive formal feedback until it is reviewed in papers and magazines for up to year,” Susskind says. He adds, “that’s a long time to have to wait to test out your ideas.”

By publishing extracts of his forthcoming book, Susskind was able to solicit feedback and spark a debate which has already spread to this side of the Atlantic.

Divining the future is a difficult art form. Before diving into the current debate, many readers might want to know just how accurate Susskind’s earlier forecasts were, from his 1996 bestseller, The Future of Law. When asked point blank which predictions were on target and which ones missed the mark, Susskind cautions that it’s important to assess his prognostic abilities with regard to the context of the times.

“If I say something like, I predicted that e-mail would become the dominant way in which lawyers and their clients would communicate with one another. You’d think, yeah, but big deal,” Susskind retorts. “But at the time I had people saying that… I was dangerous to the legal profession and I didn’t understand confidentiality and security and that e-mail would only have a peripheral impact. Ten years ago very few lawyers were using e-mails with clients.”

Similarly, critics scoffed at Susskind for suggesting in 1996 that the Internet would be the main source for legal research rather than the library.

Other predictions, such as the widespread use of online deal rooms and online auctions for legal services haven’t really come to pass, Susskind concedes. However, he maintains, “their day will come yet.” Besides, Susskind notes that we’re only a little more than halfway through the 20 year period for which he made his projections in his last book.

Transforming legal practice

Market forces and technological innovations will radically transform the legal profession over the next decade, Susskind predicts.

As a consultant for in-house legal departments worldwide, Susskind hears the same complaints over and over. “Clients are saying unambiguously in many countries that they need more for less. There is more legal work to do, yet they have less resources available.”

The drive to control legal costs will compel companies to search for less costly alternatives.

“The traditional way of delivering legal service, crafting the solution from scratch starting with a blank sheet of paper, is a luxury that no one will be able to afford,” Susskind argues.

“A lot of legal work is routine and repetitive; we can do it in different ways, it can be outsourced, off-shored, done by computers, standardized.”

Susskind projects legal services will follow an evolutionary trajectory from “bespoke” services to commoditized services.

“A bespoke suit is a suit you might buy in Savile Row, which is tailored specifically for you,” Susskind explains. “This is in contrast to off the shelf [legal services] where you take something off the peg and adjust it a little.”

According to Susskind, another way that in-house legal departments will cut the costs of legal services is by forming communities and sharing knowledge, using online social networking sites and collaborative websites, such as wiki.

“This is very threatening for traditional law firms, since traditional law firms advise one client at a time, but what you are going to see is collaboration among clients and the sharing of knowledge.”

Susskind offers two examples of collaborative legal projects that are already under way. In the U.K., nine investment banks banded together to form the Banking Legal Technology Group, a comprehensive online legal resource which includes articles, checklists, guides, case summaries, updates and precedents. In the U.S., in-house counsel launched Legal OnRamp, a collaborative project to share legal knowledge.

The future of lawyers

So what’s in store for the future of lawyers? Will lawyers be replaced by robots that can churn out memos, draft contracts and review documents and that occasionally run amok, turning on their corporate masters and wreaking havoc? Not quite.

“A great many lawyers over the next ten years will find that their traditional line of work is no longer viable,” Susskind argues. “They have will two choices: to either leave the legal profession or find new jobs in the new legal world.”

How do you know if your job is in peril? “If a lawyer is involved in fairly routine work, they can expect to be replaced by a cheaper alternative,” Susskind responds. Basically, if the legal tasks which you perform can be delegated downward, outsourced, off-shored or handled by computer software, your legal career may be in jeopardy.

However, if your work is premised on personal contact and human relationships, you’re not likely to be replaced by technology, according to Susskind. “For traditional disputes, lawyers will still be retained, but a lot of what they do inefficiently today will be eliminated.”

When one door closes, another often opens. Susskind foresees the emergence of new kinds of lawyers, such as legal hybrids and legal knowledge engineers.

Legal hybrids will have expertise in areas other than law and will go beyond providing legal advice to giving guidance in other fields.

“Already many lawyers are working beyond legal service, such as project management and risk management,” Susskind says. He adds that it is vital for the profession that lawyers are trained in other disciplines beyond law.

Legal knowledge engineers will “design and develop information systems which companies use,” Susskind explains. Essentially, legal knowledge engineers will be responsible for maintaining and updating data bases of legal decisions and developing the programs to perform routine legal work.

Currently, for example, the accounting behemoth Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu’s tax software is used by 70 of the top 100 companies worldwide, Susskind says. “It requires teams of tax professionals to maintain and update the huge decision tree[…] we are going to need specialists who understand both the law and technology.” Robots need not apply.

The end?

Change is inevitable, though no one can say with certainty what change will bring. Yet Susskind argues that very few managing partners at law firms have grappled with the coming wave of change. Why is that?

“Most law firms are being managed by senior individuals who only have a few years to go at the helm. Generally, they will try to secure a period of commercial success, growing reputation and winning more clients. They will not be inclined, with only a small number of years left to go, to entirely disrupt the business model. The people who are running law firms themselves aren’t motivated to looking 20 years hence.”

As for Susskind, he looks deep into the future and learns from the mistakes of the past. Unlike the famous political theorist Francis Fukuyama, who published The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, and has been ridiculed ever since – when history failed to cooperate – Susskind is clever enough to hedge his bets. His new book, due out in June, will keep the question mark at the end of the title.